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'Jamaica, Farewell' comes home

Published:Wednesday | August 11, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Debra Ehrhardt performing in 'Jamaica, Farewell'. - Contributed

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Debra Ehrhardt's 90-minute one woman autobiographical show 'Jamaica, Farewell' - in which she plays a quadruple handful of characters - is not exactly new.

It premiered in London at the Hackney Empire in September of 2008, then last year, had an eight-week off-Broadway at the Soho Playhouse, New York.

However, when it opens at the Theatre Place, Haining Road, New Kingston today for a five-day run 'Jamaica, Farewell' will be new to the country in which it has its roots.

And Ehrhardt is hoping for a welcoming audience. "I would like to invite all Jamaicans to listen to an honest story from someone who is going to get naked in front of you - not literally," Ehrhardt told The Gleaner.

"I promising you, it will be a great evening."

Cultural differences

She knows that the dramatic 'nakedness' is one of the cultural differences between the country she migrated from in the 1970s (and now returns to about thrice yearly) and the United States (US), where she has lived her dreams of a "better life". She says "in Jamaica, we are very private and we shame easily. I have learnt that in America people do not judge you for that". So Ehrhardt readily says that her father spent 99.9 per cent of his time in the bar and her mother spent 99.9 per cent of her time in the church, "praying for Daddy to leave the bar".

"I feel when we share our stories with each other we will feel more caring about each other ... I do not see it as airing dirty laundry," Ehrhardt said.

However, she has struck a balance in 'Jamaica, Farewell', stripping the characters she knew from her childhood in Jamaica for the audience, but changing the names of all but her immediate family.

So 'Jamaica, Farewell', which was written four-and-a-half years ago, opens with a voiceover and then starts with Ehrhardt as a seven year-old. There is a healthy serving of humour and Ehrhardt affirms that "my memories of Jamaica are nearly all very good. I do not have terrible memories of growing up in Jamaica. Most of them are very good."

There are, however, moments where the tears flow - and they are not a part of the script.

"There is a part that does bring me to tears," Ehrhardt said. "When I am on stage, I am living that story, I am taking you in the moment. It is like I am there again, living that moment. You have to go with whatever emotion comes up."

Hard work

She is aware, of course, that the story of her migration experience will resonate with many who have also made the voyage outwards or wish to do so, and notes that America "is not Disney Land. You have to work hard". However, working hard has its rewards and the Jamaican traits serve very well there.

In her US experience, Ehrhardt has been determined to not only achieve her dreams, but not lose her 'Jamaicanness'. "A lot of people who left when I left never went back. People say 'what you going back for?' ... I have lived in America longer than I have lived in Jamaica, but I sound very Jamaican and I have no intention of losing my 'Jamaicanness' or Jamaican accent at all - unlike a lot of my friends in America who sound totally American," Ehrhardt said.

So when she was doing theatre in the early days "they said I would never get a job with the Jamaican accent". Even her agent advised her to do speech classes to change her accent, but Ehrhardt refused.

"I decided I would not change my Jamaican accent. The only way I could work in America was to create my own work," she said. And she decided that she was going to write stories about the Caribbean and her Jamaican memories. Among the playwrights whose work she studied was Trevor Rhone and Ehrhardt came up with 'Mango, Mango' (which received two National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People awards) and 'Invisible Chairs' (optioned for a sitcom by Fox).

'Jamaica, Farewell' is her third one-woman show.