The story of Debra Ehrhardt and ‘Jamaica Farewell’
From the moment she speaks, it is clear Ehrhardt is an expert storyteller, an effortless raconteur with expressive facial and hand movements that brings her and her listener to life.
Her play, based on her life story, is “95 percent true.” It is a story so shocking and unbelievable, it is no wonder that Hollywood producers have taken notice. In fact, “Jamaica Farewell” is being adapted for the big screen, with producers planning to cast a big-name Caribbean performing artist in the lead role.
When Ehrhardt was an 18-year-old secretary living in Kingston, Jamaica, she had a passion for all-things America. On her lunch break one day, she met a handsome CIA agent over a bowl of oxtail soup. It was during the turbulent ‘70s of the Manley era and she desperately wanted to go to America to make a better life for herself. With pure tenaciousness, optimism and a sense of invincibility that young people have, she began her dangerous adventure. She agreed to smuggle a million dollars in cash to a mysterious contact somewhere in Miami, with her CIA agent friend as her accomplice, unbeknown to him.
The skilled actress portrays more than 20 characters in the play, and has earned rave reviews for her ability to change character with such ease, no doubt, a skill she learned as a young child in Jamaica. She honed her storytelling skills at age 9 when she would sit in a big mango tree and regale her playmates with stories of the neighbors (and charged 5 cents a head). She credits her ability to capture people’s attention to her mother, a devout Christian and a wonderful Bible storyteller.
“I would make up stories about people in the neighborhood and act out all the parts,” says Ehrhardt. This proved to be her inspiration for her first play, the award-winning “Mango, Mango.”
“Jamaica Farewell” is Ehrhardt’s third one-woman show, following the award-winning “Invisible Chairs,” produced by David Strasberg at the Marilyn Monroe Theater in West Hollywood and later optioned as a situation comedy by Fox. The play was the final production in the 2010-11 subscription season at Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theater in Los Angeles. Marshall produced the play with Rita Wilson, wife of Tom Hanks, after she optioned the rights. Wilson also brought in director Joel Zwick of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” fame.
“Invisible Chairs” was a story based on Ehrhardt’s alcoholic father, who was also a gambler. “We had no money left over for any type of entertainment because my dad would drink or gamble it all away. So to keep my friends and entertain myself, I started to tell stories,” she says.
Coming to America
The resourceful Ehrhardt took the commission she received from the money she smuggled into America and used it to attend acting school in New York. But at first, America didn’t turn out to be exactly how she thought it would be. When she graduated acting school, she was told he would never get an acting job with her Jamaican accent. But she refused to alter her voice.
“I’m 100 percent Jamaican,” she says. “I am extremely proud of my culture and heritage. I believe that everything I am – my security, my self esteem, my confidence – all came from my background, and I wasn’t going to deny where I came from. I love my country, but I wasn’t going to have the opportunities I wanted. Everyone is dying to get out here, but it’s not as easy as people think. If you say no to a Jamaican, we’ll find a way to get around it until it’s a yes.”
The actress realized quickly that if she wanted to find work, she was going to have to create it herself, and she has been doing that for the past 18 years. She not only wrote her plays, she also hosted fundraisers and auctioned herself and her friends on dates in order to raise the money she needed to put on her plays. Her hard work paid off. “Mango, Mango” was nominated for several awards and people started to take notice.
“Jamaica Farewell” has been performed all over the world to wonderful reviews.
After the Cayman run, Ehrhardt will perform at the Soho Playhouse in New York, and in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August.
Often, many audience members come up to her after her performance to tell her their own stories, and it brings her much joy. “Although my play is set in Jamaica, everyone wants to hear a good story. It’s a universal story, and everyone can relate to it, especially immigrants coming to America,” she says.
“Everyone has a story. It’s not political. It’s about a little girl with a dream, and we all have dreams.
“Although the protagonist is doing something illegal, everyone still roots for her. They love her and want her to make it. It’s so great to be doing what you love and to get paid for what you love doing. I thank God every day that I’m living the American dream!”
The play is at 7:30 p.m, Friday; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets, $35, email [email protected] or call 938-1998. For more details on the play, visit www.jamaicafarewelltheplay.com.