When there’s a will there’s a way. Of course for proof of this adage you need look no further than the hundreds of thousands of fiercely determined migrants now trying to make their way to Europe in search of a new and safer home. A far more entertaining version of an immigrant story is told in “Jamaica Farewell,” Debra Ehrhardt’s playfully sexy, often wildly comic, and at times terrifying one-woman show. The actress/writer traces her own picaresque journey, when, at the age of 18, and after years of yearning, she finally was able to make the trip from the island of Jamaica to America — the land whose citizens she had affectionately referred to as “Doodle Dandies” throughout her childhood.
Ehrhardt’s savvy, ebullient, happily “embroidered” tale — now at the Royal George Theatre by way of producer Hershey Felder and director Joel Zwick — is a slightly more elaborate version of the show she tried out several years ago at Chicago’s Chopin Theatre. Since then, Ehrhardt — a wonderfully expressive actress capable of rapid-fire shifts in voice, body language and characterization — has toured widely with it, and is penning a possible film version. But this is a quintessential theatrical odyssey, and I doubt anyone will be able to tell conjure it quite like the woman who lived it. To be sure, once you’ve heard Ehrhardt’s story it’s a good bet you won’t forget it.
When: Through Oct. 11
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
The daughter of a mixed marriage, Ehrhardt grew up in Kingston, part of what she explains was a very small middle class that existed between the dirt poor and the very wealthy. Her mother was a devoted Catholic; her father, of a lower class, was an alcoholic and gambler whose habits often left the family destitute, even if it didn’t diminish his daughter’s love.
From the age of five, Ehrhardt was driven by her dream to get to America — propelled in part by the Moon Pies and Baby Ruths her friend, the daughter of an Air Jamaica employee, would bring home from trips with her family to Miami. After finishing high school, Ehrhardt’s attempts to get a student visa failed (no “financial support”), as did her goofy effort to seek approval by passing as a nun. Things became even more difficult with the election of Michael Manley as Jamaica’s Prime Minister. A Socialist allied with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, his tenure resulted in great civil strife on the island, as well as the arrival of the CIA. And therein lies the juiciest part of Ehrhardt’s tale.
While working as a secretary for a prosperous businessman, Ehrhardt had a fortuitous meeting at a local lunch place that served oxtail soup and goat testicles. She spotted a tall, dark, handsome American named John, learned that he worked for “The Company,” and used her mix of guile and wily flirtatiousness to strike up a friendship she hoped would become her “ticket to America.”
The chance to be the go-between in a serious bit of money laundering for her boss finally made getting a visa possible, and her romance with John added the other essential component that got her to Florida. But it is Ehrhardt’s bravura, high-octane recounting of her initial journey to the U.S. — passing through many circles of hell, from a poignant farewell to her dad, to a harrowing trek from Kingston to the airport in Montego Bay, and then on through customs in Miami — that clinches the storytelling deal here.
The show leaves you pondering many questions, most notably: How did Ehrhardt finally explain to John that she had made him her unwitting accomplice? And just how much poetic license has she taken in spinning her tale? Mostly, however, it makes you wish there were a sequel.