Keisha-Gaye Anderson

the door

Jamaica Farewell: Debra Ehrhardt on her New Play

May 14, 2012

Farewell is not the same as goodbye. And although Debra Ehrhardt took extraordinary measures to leave Jamaica in search of her personal American dream, it is her eternal love of her homeland that continues to fuel her creative work.

Ehrhardt’s one-woman play, “Jamaica Farewell,” tells the story of her remarkable determination to get to America as a young woman, amidst the political and economic powder keg that was Jamaica during the 1970s. She does get her wish, with a little help from an unsuspecting CIA agent, but not before encountering more than her fair share of obstacles.

However, the real strength of the play lies in Ehrhardt’s depiction of the everyday Jamaican people who make up the fabric of the nation and give Jamaica its unique charm. From the rum shop regulars and taxi drivers to the country bus passengers and embassy gatekeepers, Ehrhardt’s characters display a biting humor that is uniquely Jamaican and, at the same time, universally accessible.

But most of all, “Jamaica Farewell” is funny—the type of funny that happens around a domino table at 2 a.m. with your irreverent Uncle Clive and his mechanic shop buddies, who all possess loud voices and even louder opinions.

I spoke to Debra Ehrhardt about her play, and her Jamaican roots.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: You are obviously a very talented writer. And funny! What made you focus on these particular life experiences for your play?

Debra Ehrhardt: I’m a storyteller at heart. Jamaica Farewell was just one more narrative I had to write. It’s a chapter in Jamaica’s history that’s rarely dramatized from the point of view I chose to write from. I also thought that my experiences and the subject matter would be something Jamaicans could relate to—and they do. But, it's also a universal story. An audience connecting to my work is important to me. Not to worry, though. There’s humor within this dramatic tale as well.

K.G.A.: Migration is as Jamaican as ackee and saltfish, and happens for different reasons. For you personally, what was it about life in Jamaica--as well as what you believed about America--that made you so determined to leave?

D.E.: Yes, life was hard when I was growing up in Jamaica, but that wasn’t the sole reason why I wanted to leave. I have always wanted to travel, to see what the world had to offer, to experience what it was like to live in another country. And I wanted to pursue an acting career as well.

K.G.A.: When you finally did realize your dream of coming to the United States, did it match your expectations? Tell me about those first years and any anecdotes about how you got acclimated.

D.E.: I remember experiencing my first cold winter. It was so cold one afternoon that I could not use my fingers to even write my name. When I eventually got home, thinking it would be nice and cozy, that turned out not to be the case – the heating system in my apartment complex was broken; and it wouldn’t be fixed until the next morning. So there I am wrapped up in a blanket, wearing an over-sized wool cap, and stockings, and filling myself with warm liquids while watching the Jimmy cliff and Robin Williams flick, “Club Paradise,” which was filmed entirely in Jamaica. I never knew what cold felt like until I moved to the USA. America has lived up to my expectations because I am living my dream, but it has come true with much hard work.

K.G.A.: Identity is often dependent upon geography. Talk about your experiences in the entertainment field, as someone having a strong Jamaican accent but not matching the American idea of what a Jamaican should look like.

D.E.: Let’s get real—Jamaicans are one of the most diverse people on this planet, yet, we are stereotyped. I lost roles because of what I sounded and looked like. I could have “blended in,” but that’s not me. Period. But guess what? It was my resistance to conformity, my frustration with ignorance that motivated me to put pen to paper and write my own roles, since waiting on someone to give/offer me one proved useless. As they say, “Yu tek yuh lemons dem an mek lemonade! (Add sugar inna it to! ).”

K.G.A.: What has made you hold tight to your Jamaican identity, in spite of the pressure to "blend in"?

D.E.: Pressure came and still constantly does come from all sides to conform. For example, before Jamaica Farewell took off, becoming the worldwide sensation it is today, I was told many times that it wouldn’t be accepted by the so-called “foreign crowd” because it was “too Jamaican.” Who’s laughing in whose face now? I was brought up to be proud of where I came from; my parents taught me that culture makes you who you are. It shapes your psyche. And if you throw away your culture, you throw away a big piece of who you are. That made sense to me. I love myself too much to do such harm.

K.G.A.: The title of your play intrigues me. Did you experience homesickness when first coming to the states? Have you spent much time in Jamaica since migrating and are you planning at some point to move back?

D.E.: In my mind the word “Farewell” never meant “a permanent goodbye – never to see you again.” It was like, “see ya later!” Or as I like to say, “Likkle more!” I did experience homesickness in the beginning, not wanting to return when I wanted because of either employment or educational obligations. But when things finally settled down, I began returning, and still frequently do return to Jamaica with my husband and kids. Heck I'm saving to buy property in Port Antonio. Mi nuh waan dead in America!

K.G.A.: How did you choose the characters that you included in the piece?

D.E.: All characters in Jamaica Farewell are either people I’ve encountered throughout my life (names have been changed to protect the innocent, and not so innocent) or they are a combination, a hybrid, if you will, of several traits molded into one.

K.G.A.: Jamaicans are very proud people. In your opinion, what makes Jamaica and Jamaican people stand out, especially in the arts?

D.E.: It was instilled in all of us as children to be proud of our heritage, to always do our best with what we had. What we’ve created for the entire world to see and to admire—NO ONE gave us. We did it on our own. We have the world’s fastest man (Usain Bolt), some of the greatest musical superstars (Monty Alexander, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, Third World, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, to name a few), and world-class authors (Claude McKay, Colin Channer, Roger Mais, Rachael Manley, etc.). I can go on and on. But I think I’ve made my point. We have a standard set by our own people to either maintain or to surpass.

K.G.A.: What are some of your future artistic goals?

D.E.: At this point I’m very busy with not only performing Jamaica Farewell the stage-play, but I am also writing another stage-play, and I am currently writing the theatrical feature-film script version of Jamaica Farewell. Rita Wilson-Hanks (My Big Fat Greek Weeding) optioned the stage and screen rights.

For more about Debra Ehrhardt or Jamaica Farewell, visit her site