An Interview with Jamaica Farewell’s Debra Ehrhardt

After receiving rave reviews from the critics in Los Angeles, Jamaica Farewell, written and performed by Debra Ehrhardt recently opened in Atlanta at the Academy Theatre in Avondale Estates on April 19th, 2007 and will run for three weeks. “It’s a play that will make you laugh and cry,” said one LA critic who described Debra’s performance as a” Tour de force… an unforgettable journey, crafted with wit and empathy.”

Jamaica farewell is a one woman play based on Debra’s true story of her life growing up in Jamaica and her subsequent journey to the United States during a time of political upheaval in Jamaica. It is directed by Monique Lai who is also Jamaican. The playwright / performer agreed to the following interview with Glen Laman:

When did you first realize you had writing and performing talent?

We used the have family gatherings at Dunn’s River Falls one Sunday every month. We would pile into the car, baskets filled with containers of rice and peas, plantains, brown stew chicken and curry goat stocked in the trunk. The kids would be responsible for the entertainment. It was my favorite time. I always went first because I was never scared and I could hold everyone’s attention longer than anyone. I loved their applause and reactions. Also, I never missed the story sessions on television every week with Miss Lou’s and Ranny Williams at Jamaica House. But, my mother was the best story teller of them all. Those were some of my best times…ah, the good old days…

If you had to choose only one craft, writing or acting, which would it be?

It would be acting. Acting stems from storytelling which is something I’ve always loved and been very good at. The truth is, I started writing because I couldn’t get any acting roles when I first started out. The producers and directors said my ‘look’ never matched my accent. In fact, many of them thought I was putting on a Jamaican accent – can you believe that? As if anybody but a Jamaican could speak perfect Jamaican! Nobody knew how to cast me since I didn’t fit into any category. Then they wanted me to change my accent to sound more American. I didn’t want to lose any part of what made me unique. So, I decided to write roles for myself, where I wouldn’t
have to change a thing.

Can you describe some of your other works?

“Mango Mango,” the first play I wrote, was about me as a young girl finding my place in the world: growing up in Jamaica and realizing that things and people weren’t always as they appeared to be. In “Mango Mango,” I looked out at the world and commented on what I saw. “Invisible Chairs” dealt with our relationships with family. We are all a product of the family we came from. The relationships we will find ourselves in for the rest of our lives – husband to wife, girlfriend to boyfriend, parent to child, etc. – will all bear the marks left by that first family experience. This simple truth crosses every line that divides us from each other: race, age, and class.

I understand you have won several awards?

My first play ‘Mango Mango’ was nominated for ‘Best Actress,’ ‘Best Playwright,’ Best Sound and Best Music by the NAACP theatre awards in Los Angeles and we won two. It was also chosen as one of the best plays of the year by a top Beverly Newspaper. My second play was optioned and produced by David Strasberg after being chosen from a group of plays. Fox television ended up optioning the piece for a sitcom because of the reviews. And I just found out recently that “Jamaica Farewell’ was chosen as a finalist in a top New York playwright competition so I’m very excited about that!

What is your inspiration for writing?

I love people. They intrigue me. I love observing them and finding out who they really are. I was a teenager when I arrived in America from Jamaica. I found it interesting that Americans were quick to notice and emphasize the differences between us. I wanted to write plays about what we all had in common as human beings; what united us, not what separated us. It’s my hope that by sharing these stories with the audiences, we can feel more connected with each other.

How do you go about writing; is there a process that you follow?

First I write about what is familiar to me and then I tweak. I rename characters and places to add some laughs and embellish other parts to make sure the audience is completely engaged. Then I call and torment every family member and friend who’s ever owed me a favor and read the stories over and over to them to get their individual feedback. I look for underlying similarities in their criticisms and praise and then start the rewriting process as writing is all about rewriting. When I feel I can write no more and I’ve maxed out my cell phone minutes, I lure everyone back to my house for a Jamaican feast and do a reading of the rewritten work. From their
comments I rewrite again and have two or three more readings before the work is ready to be put up.

Do you ever go back to Jamaica?

Every chance I get! When I left Jamaica many years ago, I left my heart there. I’m constantly telling new friends how incredible it is in Jamaica
until they decide they must and of course I would never send a friend there without a personal tour guide – moi.

How would you describe growing up in Jamaica?

The best years of my life!! As a young girl I spent most of my time in a big Mango Tree in my back yard daydreaming sand fantasizing. I was monarch of
all I surveyed. Life was easy – as we say ‘no problem man.’ The no problem mentality was my reality. I had all that I needed. I spent a lot of time
in that tree telling stories to the kids in the neighborhood. It was an easy carefree life as a little girl – church every Saturday, maybe a picnic on
the beach on Sundays – school during the week… Unfortunately as you get older, your eyes are opened to the imperfections around you.

How did you end up in Los Angeles?

I started out in New York but there were more career opportunities as a writer and performer in LA, plus my Jamaican butt couldn’t go through
another winter!

I bet most Americans are surprised you are Jamaican; how do you respond to them?

I give them a history lesson on Jamaica and tell them our motto – out of many – ONE.

How did your family feel about you writing personal stories?

Upon hearing the compulsion to share my story, my slightly distressed mother insisted upon a few key name changes so that the integrity of the family would not
be infringed. In her own words, “no boddah draw down crowd pon mi an put mi name inna no newspapah.”

How would you summarize your philosophy or approach to life?

I believe the Jamaican motto can be extrapolated to the entire world. People come from different countries, have different backgrounds, are different colors but the human condition is universal and we are all fundamentally the same. We are all here to help and serve each other. My friends tell me I’m the least judgmental person they know. I’ll treat the Queen of England and the dancing bum on the corner of the street with the same respect. It may be the trend for people to compare themselves to people who are more fortunate than they, but if you look at it the other way you will always appreciate and be thankful for what you have.

Is there something that you really cherish or seek?

I cherish my two children, Danny and Jessica, my family, my friends and my health. I seek a modest existence where my children won’t have to fret,
infallible optimism and of a bit of wisdom I can use to help others.

What would we be surprised to know about you?

When my children frustrate me, I scream at them in patois… Even at a five star restaurant, I suck the bones dry..I kiss my teeth in public… And I’m saving up to buy a little place in Port Antonio because I’m moving back in 10 years!