Debra Ehrhardt’s sure-footed one-woman show is an immigrant story of a type many Americans are inclined to romanticize (if it is buried far enough in the past), or denigrate, especially if it involves people from the Caribbean or Latin America. The cunning, determination, and perseverance required of a Jamaican person immigrating to this country are not always easy to remember for those privileged enough to have been born here, and Ehrhardt’s courageously straightforward approach foregrounds these qualities throughout her play’s storyline. If the dialogue does not always operate successfully in its use of verbal irony or as a systematic critique of colonialism, those seeming deficiencies may have more to do with what the show is saying than with what it leaves out. Ehrhardt wants to remind us that, regardless of whatever else may complicate the globalized lives we all now lead, Americans still enjoy a range of opportunities most other people do not.
The plot here pits young Debra against both her dysfunctional family and the Jamaican bureaucracy. Despite having earned admission to nursing school at the University of Florida, Ehrhardt is denied a visa to travel there on the grounds that she does not have the financial security to do so.
Complications arrive in the form of an American CIA operative with whom the young Ehrhardt becomes romantically involved, and a mysterious bag containing more than a million dollars in American cash. The maneuver Ehrhardt pulls in relation to these two hurdles may not satisfy most people’s ethical standards, but the audience winds up rooting for her despite this, mostly because of the extreme risks she takes. By the time Ehrhardt lands safely in Miami and turns over the contraband currency, there’s no longer any question about whether or not the deception involved was worthwhile. Ehrhardt jumps down from the stage and high-fives members of the audience, vividly enacting her connection to America through physical contact.
Ehrhardt uses a variety of voices and reveals characters through pantomime. A better actress than mimic, her characterizations nevertheless remained consistent enough to be believable. The most difficult question raised by the piece involves its relation to the truth. If Jamaica Farewell is a thinly veiled version of a true story, that is one thing, but if it is an allegory, or even just a simplified and augmented adaptation of the original true-life tale, then it takes on the burden of representing something more. What this something more might be remains ours to imagine.