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Coming to America

By James Yeara

Jamaica Farewell

By Debra Ehrhardt, directed by Monique Lai

Woodstock Fringe Festival, Byrdcliffe Theater, through Sept. 2

 

Jamaica Farewell is a fascinating story of one woman’s obsession to leave her island homeland and come to the land of the American Dream. Straight from the recently completed New York Fringe Festival, where it was selected as one of just 13 productions (out of 240) to be reprised this September at the SoHo Playhouse, Jamaica Farewell is perfect “fringe” theater. It’s a one-woman, 90-minute feast for the ears and soul. Performed on a nearly bare stage, with four black cloth covered flats spaced even across upstage; two desk-sized black cubes center stage to use as chairs, cars, beds, or tables; one black metal music stand downright; and one lithe, dark-eyed actress moving all about the stage as her picaresque tale of leaving the “blue emerald of the Caribbean” for the “shores of the red, white, and blue” unfolds. Jamaica Farewell keeps the focus on the acting, the story, and the relationship between actor and audience.

As a reggae version of the song “Jamaica Farewell” plays in the darkness, the lights come up on Debbie (Debra Ehrhardt), standing in that most American of locales, a Manhattan Starbucks. Fretting about what drink to purchase, whether to go for fewer calories or better taste, she declares that most American of sentiments to the audience: “I love it when you can drink and chew at the same time.”

She then takes us back to Jamaica, all long limbs and smiles as an 8 year old obsessed with the United States, singing “Born on the Fourth of July” for the talent show at St. George’s School in Kingston, loving starfish “because they remind me of the stars on the flag.” Her right arm behind her, holding on to her left elbow, shifting leg to leg, Ehrhardt is the embodiment of youthful zeal, connected to every promise and ideal America represents to a poor girl in the Third World, so close to the golden shores of her dream that can only come true with the magic of an elusive visa.

Yet Ehrhardt’s America—a place where “you stay up late, eat as much candy as you want, where there’s more than one TV station, and every channel shows cartoons, and where there’s a store bigger than all of Jamaica”—is in sharp contrast to Debbie’s Jamaica as she blossoms into her late teens before the audience; a more womanly Debbie recounts her father repeatedly losing the family furniture in drunken poker games, and her mother’s Pollyanna acceptance stifling her. At the same time, the country as a whole is collapsing under new Prime Minister Michael Manley’s plunge into Socialism, which plays out like the worst elements of her father’s drinking and her mother’s passive faith.

Ehrhardt economically creates the sundry characters her 17-year-old self encounters in her quest to leave the chaos and dead-ends of Jamaica for the promise of her idealized America: a priest, soldiers, businessmen promising visas, a CIA agent—and a rapist. Neither characters nor story are lost as the efforts to leave Jamaica, smuggling $1,000,000 with the unwitting aid of the besotted CIA agent (Ehrhardt knows how to use her hips) become more and more circuitous, taking intrepid Debbie through the poverty of “Pigeon Town” and “Jackass Ridge,” circles of Jamaica she never known, barely escaping a horrific rape and then a gaudy bawdy house. Yet Ehrhardt never loses the audience, the characters, the story, or her sense of humor; there’s much laughter in Jamaica Farewell, a testimony to Ehrhardt’s talent. When she concludes Jamaica Farewell, high-fiving the audience having arrived in America, she ends where she began, in Starbucks, declaring “This is America, I can have whatever I want” with a smile on her face that is the promise of another tale worth hearing. In her bio Ehrhardt writes that “American directors were constantly confused . . . how to cast her because she didn’t fit into their typical classifications such as black, white, Hispanic or whatever else came to mind.” Jamaica Farewell clears up the confusion: she’s a talented American. Lou Dobbs take note.

 

 


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