Monday, March 17, 2008

Jamaica Farewell
A Review by Andrea Daley

A Jamaican’s dream of coming to America, An all too familiar story, A one-woman rendition;—are all captions which may be ascribed to Jamaica farewell. This Debra Ehrhardt tale, told in beautiful soliloquy, is tidily unwrapped onstage at the Soho Playhouse. The audience travels with Ms. Ehrhardt from childhood through early adulthood, as she navigates this uncertain path to America.

Now in America, she finds herself reminiscing on this life while in a line at Starbucks, no less. You see, perusing the menu, (where the choice of beverage is as opportune as life in America), where “you can have anything you want;” can make an immigrant wistful.

She weaves this personal tapestry with colorful threads of her Jamaican middle-class life, filled with fond memories of a stoic, but nurturing mother and an often absent father, whose penchant for gambling and drinking has taken hold of his life, rendering him incapable of loving and nurturing his family.

She appears (first scene) on stage as a young girl, and effortlessly wends through the different personas critical to the development of the story. Her ability to take this nascent time of her life and make it so relatable is commendable. It allows the audience who knows the Jamaican childhood experience to travel back in time and relive theirs. She recalls her childhood dream and the many twists and turns her journey takes. Growing up listening to her childhood friend tell tales of her American travels and possessions, whilst silently believing that she was better suited for that experience. As many of us know these ideas take root as an impressionable child with the awe of foreign goods, foreign visits, not to mention foreign visitors with foreign tales.

As childhood fantasies give way to adult dreams, coming to America is now front and centre of Debra’s life. Debra finds, it not so easy however. She describes her family as somewhere in the middle of the social hierarchy in Jamaica. So coming from of the upper-middle, ‘uptown set’ with ‘good pedigree’, and being educated, should guarantee an easy pass at the American Embassy, right? Well, after her mother is denied and Debra’s many Embassy trips yield the same results; the mission takes on a new urgency. As she puts it, she has to come to America “by the hook or by the crook.”

After all, people of her middle and upper class background were “under siege” by the democratic socialism ideology of the ‘70’s, a message preached by then Prime Minister, Michael Manley. With threats of communism looming, many of Debra’s ilk ran (overseas); even her maid gets a visa. So why should she stay?

Fate delivers her a series of converging events. She meets an American man whose position as a CIA agent gets her working overtime to keep his infatuation with her in overdrive. This seems to be her ticket out. When she overhears her boss making plans to illegally get money out of the country to Miami, she hastily volunteers to courier said package, escorted of course by her CIA man. What happens afterwards borders on near mayhem and personal tragedy, filled with hilarity and nerve racking (travel) and travails.

This Jamaican story is poignant and funny. The development is sharp and precise. Playwright and performer, Debra Ehrhardt captures this passage and the beginnings of this journey with clarity and wit. She demonstrates a complete range of fully-developed acting chops, whilst taking us on this journey. It is remarkable and experiential as you engage in this adventure. She relies on nothing but imaginative, clever writing, beautiful cadence, audience engagement and storytelling.

It’s a spirited, vibrant performance filled with enough charm to power the room. In fact, it’s just her on stage, an hour and a half, with a few boxes and a podium.