‘Jamaica, Farewell’ on Aspen stage
December 30, 2010
ASPEN – Theater lovers will get the chance to see “Jamaica, Farewell,” Debra Ehrhardt’s critically acclaimed one-woman play, at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House on Sunday night before it undergoes a significant production upgrade in February by Hollywood producer Rita Wilson and director Joel Zwick.
Wilson and Zwick teamed on the successful romantic comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a sleeper film in 2002 that to date has grossed more than $350 million. Working with Ehrhardt, they plan to revamp the script and make other technical changes to the presentation of “Jamaica, Farewell,” which Ehrhardt has performed nearly 150 times since it debuted in late 2008.
Ehrhardt says the finished product will be rolled out with a run from March 16 to April 17 at producer-director Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre in Burbank, Calif. A U.S. tour will follow. Wilson, wife of actor Tom Hanks, has optioned the stage and film rights.
Success can be a heady thing, Ehrhardt admits.
“Sometimes I think I’m dreaming; I don’t even think I’m awake,” says the Kingston-born actress-playwright, who once was told by Hollywood agents that she would never get acting parts because of her thick Jamaican accent.
She describes the play – her third one-woman show – as mostly drama with some comedic elements. It’s largely autobiographical, recalling her youth in Jamaica during the 1970s, a period in which the small country was marked by revolution and political upheaval.
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During an interview with The Aspen Times earlier this week, Ehrhardt was reluctant to discuss the plot, fearing she would give away too much to the potential audience. Essentially, “Jamaica, Farewell” is about a girl born into a turbulent life. Her alcoholic father gambles and loses big. Her mother blames the family’s problems on “the devil.” As an escape, she tells stories to entertain herself and her friends, and dreams of finding success in America.
Most of the play concerns her journey as a young woman seeking to immigrate to the United States. Along the way for the teenager, there are dangerous adventures and comedic escapades, all against a backdrop of class and racial upheaval.
“It’s the story about my journey from Jamaica to the U.S. during a political revolution,” says Ehrhardt. “I had wanted to move to the United States since I was 7. Growing up, I always heard that if you worked hard in America you could achieve anything you want.”
She says 99 percent of “Jamaica, Farewell” is a true story, although there are times where the script allows for poetic license and embellishment. She plays 22 different characters, and has been lauded for the ease with which she slips in and out of various personas. “I love acting out all the stories and becoming other people,” she says.
Without giving away plot details, Ehrhardt says the play highlights some of the “dumb, illegal things that a 17-year-old girl did” in order to get out of Jamaica. “I took some huge chances,” she says. “I almost got raped and killed. I could have gone to jail. It was and still is the most terrifying thing that ever happened to me.”
Ehrhardt discussed her writing style, which some might find peculiar. Armed with a solid storyline, many great authors and playwrights escape to a solitary setting, pound away at a keyboard or an antique typewriter for weeks or months, emerging later with a disheveled appearance and a finished masterpiece. Ehrhardt employs a more open style, continually rewriting and seeking feedback from family and friends, even members of her audience. In addition to “Jamaica, Farewell,” she has written the plays “Mango, Mango,” winner of two NAACP awards, and “Invisible Chairs,” which has been optioned as a sitcom by Fox.
“I listen to every comment that people give me,” she says. “When you get enough of the same comments, you have to take them into consideration. You have to be very open and flexible to trying out everything, and then going with what works best.”
She says she enjoys the connections she makes with the audience. She considers herself an actor first and foremost, and says her writing career was borne out of her experiences as a performer.
“People come up to me and say, ‘My father was a drunk too.’ It’s a way in which we share and connect with each other.”
Ehrhardt’s father passed away three years ago. Her mother lives in Atlanta, and was very nervous when Ehrhardt took up the business of writing “Jamaica, Farewell.”
“She asked me, ‘Why are you airing all of your dirty laundry?’ ” Ehrhardt remembers. “But I don’t feel ashamed of anything in my life.”
Her two sisters enjoy her stories, she says – “as long as their names aren’t mentioned.”