“I'm sad to say, I'm on my way / Won't be back for many a day / My heart is down, my head is turning around / I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town”
If you’ve ever been to Jamaica as a tourist, hearing Harry Belafonte’s famous Jamaica Farewell might make you nostalgic to return. Debra Ehrhardt’s Jamaica Farewell, which was the featured performance at the Colony Theatre in Burbank on December 9th, 2006 for the ninth annual celebration of the Los Angeles-based Jamaica Cultural Alliance, tells a different goodbye story.
An uproarious, autobiographical tale of a young woman’s irrepressible desire to migrate away from Jamaica, leaving her own little girlhood behind, Ehrhardt’s inspired performance makes you laugh and cry and applaud the persistence of the human spirit.
“In America, everybody can have everything, if they want it…Ever since I was seven years old, all I wanted was to come to America…” performer/playwright Debra Ehrhardt confesses in her simply staged one-woman tour de force about her madcap journey to America in the 1970s, a revolutionary period in Jamaican history.
Jamaica may be the “blue emerald of the Caribbean,” fragrant with honeysuckle and ocean breezes, but all Debra wanted was to trade that shimmering, sensual gem for the American candy land of “moon pies and Baby Ruths” and “stores the size of Jamaica.” If that sounds like a child’s fantasy, it is. Yet at its core the play tracks the serious business of a child holding onto her dreams, trying to heal her wounded heart.
Daddy drinks, mommy makes do, and Debra dreams about America. When she graduates from high school, she’s admitted to the University of Florida’s nursing program. After several defeated attempts to obtain a visa, including one where she poses as a nun (hilariously re-enacted complete with appropriate sound track of the embassy’s rejection stamp), Debra settles reluctantly into a job at a friend of the family’s textile company in Kingston.
Meanwhile, socialist-leaning Michael Manley has come to power and the Jamaican polity trembles with change and conflict. “Every thug has a gun,” asserts Ehrhardt. When the US government bans travel to Jamaica, Debra muses that “everything is possible in America, the problem is getting there.” Enter the character of CIA operative Jack Wallingsford - “My new ticket to America.” He can walk through security without hassle. Debra thinks all she has to do is convince Jack to take her on a trip, but why and how?
The answer comes in the form of a smuggling scheme: her employer needs someone to take one million dollars out of the country. He can get a visa and he’ll pay any fool willing to take the risk. Debra volunteers. She arranges to meet Jack for dinner, fabricating a “business trip” to Miami her boss is sending her on, and counting on her sex appeal to invite her to travel with him. The ploy works. Now she just has to make it to the airport and through security – with a million US dollars hidden in her bag! – and say goodbye to her family.
Underneath the comedy is depth of emotion tapped most poignantly in the scenes Debra enacts about her father, a man whose drunkenness Debra wisely refuses to use to blunt our sympathy for him or the strength of her love. When she declares, just before the short blackout that precedes the final escape story, that she’s an “expert at forgiving” her Dad, we understand the true cost of leaving one’s home behind, even if to pursue a long-awaited dream.
I saw the show with a mostly Jamaican audience and, at that moment, you could feel their collective memories come together in a shared sense of loss and bereavement. Such feelings ought to sober everyone with a stake in today’s debates about immigration enough to recognize that while dreams of a better life still pull many to American shores, great personal and social upheavals all too-frequently drive people away from their homes.
Under Monique Lai’s skillful, yet unobtrusive direction on an almost bare stage, Ehrhardt inhabits a cast of characters with humor and grace, taking her audience on an unforgettable journey through familial struggles interlaced with vignettes from the island’s own political and cultural past.
Whether imitating a minister’s fire and brimstone sermon, her father’s interminable drinking and gambling, her mother’s cheerful efforts to manage the resulting financial distress, (“It’s easier to vacuum in the corners if there’s no furniture”) or the CIA agent she dupes into helping her pull off an escape caper that brings to mind a low-tech James Bond movie, Ehrhardt’s portraits are crafted with wit and empathy, some more fully realized than others.
Like Sarah Jones’s much-celebrated Bridge and Tunnel, Ehrhardt brings about a dozen people to life. Unlike Jones, she does it without changing costumes or set. (Although, on the night of the performance I saw, I wished Ms. Ehrhardt had had a better fitting costume; tugging at hers to make it fit created needless distraction). Although this staging serves the linear narrative of the odyssey, it nonetheless puts a greater burden on the story itself to carry the drama forward judiciously.
We know she’s determined to get out of Jamaica. We know she’ll meet a lot of characters along the way. We want to meet them too, but we also want her to get where she’s going. For a few minutes these purposes crossed, making a couple of scenes in the latter part of the narrative a little longer and more repetitive than they needed to be, more anecdotal than essential. Another round of editing could tighten the places that sag.
We have Dorothy McCleod and the JCA to thank for bringing this excellent performance to the Los Angeles area. If you missed it, you missed an outstanding night. Along with the exhibit of Jamaican artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes paintings, the tantalizing tastes of Derrick’s Jamaican Cuisine, and the music from guitarist Olajide Paris at the reception afterward, the evening was a showcase for the richness of this island’s artistic community. (My only complaint was not winning the raffle of two Air Jamaica tickets to the island!)
Luckily, if you’re in Southern California, you have a few more chances to see this wonderful production: Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16th and 17th at 8 pm at the Luna Playhouse, 3706 San Fernando Rd, Glendale, CA (Reservations: 818-500-7200 or firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sunday Jan 7th at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423 (Reservations 818-939-1026 or email@example.com for more information).