See Jamaica Farewell Onstage Before Its Onscreen Debut

Stories of escaping Cuba are a dime una dozena in the Magic City. But it isn't every day that you hear about the struggles of a Jamaican immigrant. Jamaica Farewell is a real-life account of leaving for America in a time of political unrest in '70s Jamaica, written and performed by Debra Ehrhardt. In it, she tells the story of her dangerous attempt to enter the U.S. at the age of 17 by smuggling money into the country with the help of an unassuming American.

After finishing drama school, Ehrhardt was told that she would never make it because of her heavy Island accent. Now, the two-time NAACP Award winner's play has been produced by Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks' wife, and directed by Joel Zwick, director of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The play has been performed in several countries and is currently being adapted for the big screen. Check out her Q&A after the jump.

Cultist: Why did you decide to tell the story of your leaving Jamaica?

Ehrhardt: I started telling stories from a very young age. My dad was an

alcoholic and a gambler, so I told these stories to entertain me and my

friends. I got so good at it that I started charging five cents a


Jamaica Farewell tells my story of my travel from Jamaica to the US

during the Manely era. It's not a political story, but it does have a

political backdrop. When I graduated [drama school], everybody told me

that I wasn't going to get a job because of my Jamaican accent. And the

truth is there aren't a lot of jobs in American theater, film or TV for

Jamaicans. But I wanted to tell stories, so I decided I would write my

own stories.

I don't really consider myself a writer. I'm a trained actor. But to get

work, I had to write my own plays. And if it was going to happen

anywhere in the universe, it was going to be in America. I've been

supporting myself [through] my writing for many years. And I'm just

extremely grateful because I know it wouldn't have happened anywhere

else in the world. This is the American dream for me.

Why a one-woman play?

Because I lived in Los Angeles, and it is a little bit difficult to find

Jamaican actors there. Secondly, when you're doing a play with one

person, it's going to be much less expensive to produce it. And Jamaican

Farewell is mostly based on my true story. It's very personal to me,

and I know all the people in my story. I felt that no one could tell my

story better, because it's so near and dear to my heart.

Would you want to act in the film?

The story is about me when I was 17 years old. And unfortunately I can't

play 17 again. But I would love to be able to play another role. I have

been given the chance to write the first draft of the screenplay and

that's what I'm doing. But to be honest with you, even if I'm not in

there, I don't care because this has opened up so many other doors for

me, to perform and to act.

You worked with Tom Hanks' wife Rita Wilson, and Joel Zwick, the director of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. What was that like?

It was extremely exciting. At times I wondered if I was going to be able

to do as good of a job as before, because now you felt like the

pressure was on. When I was doing the play several months ago, Tom Hanks

and his wife Rita Wilson came to see it. Rita Wilson loved the play and

she optioned the screen rights for it. It's extremely exciting for a

little Jamaican girl who started telling her stories from a mango tree.

Joel was amazing. I made a few changes. At first I didn't really want

to, because the first run worked extremely well. [But] I feel like the

few changes they had me make, when I saw them play out, made the play

even better than before. For me to be able to work with people at this

level, for them to be the first people I ever work with, I felt really

lucky. Working with Joel Zwick was one of the best experiences of my

life. I was actually sad when the run was over.

Did you want to work on film in the beginning?

I love comedy. I like live entertainment, so I love theater. But I just

love entertaining people because I love stories. There's a satisfaction

you get from doing things on stage, and seeing the people's reacting.

But I'm extremely excited to be working on this film. The truth is, if

someone offers me a theater role and a film role, I'd definitely take

the film role! But I love doing live theater, because you get the live

audience right there.

The older I get, I'm at that point I'm trying to decide do I want to be

really happy, or be a little less happy and have a little more money?

[laughs] I'm at that crossroads in my life.

But there's just something about having the audience in the palm of your

hand and to go on a journey and get them to go along with you...

It's so funny, because my story, I escaped rape and death for real. When

this happened to me, I was very young, and when you're young you think

you're invincible and think you're never going to die. When I look back

on it, it scares me to death, because now I would never do anything like


To have people go on that journey with me and to see their reactions after the play is amazing.

I'm telling you, people who come to see Jamaica Farewell they get twice

their money's worth. It will get you out of your seat, onto that stage,

and in Jamaica. If you've never been to Jamaica when you leave that

theater you will feel like you've visited Jamaica. And it gives me great


Jamaica Farewell will be showing Sunday, July 17 at the Colony Theatre

(1040 Lincoln Rd in Miami Beach). Tickets cost $30 and can be purchased

from ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-745-3000. More information is

available at jamaicafarewelltheplay.com

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