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
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
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(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