Edinburgh Fringe 2014
"A dream. Revolution. Visa. Desperation. Seduction. US customs. Million dollars. Duffle bag. Machete. Goats. Prostitutes. Bullets. Adrenaline. Kerosene. Run for your life. Based on a true story."
On more than one occasion during Jamaica Farewell it’s all I can do to stop myself running for the exit.
Yes, Debra Ehrhardt’s conjuring of the political tumult on her home island during the Manley era is electrifying. Yes, her character sketches (especially of her parents) are superbly crafted and deeply moving. Yes, her narrative arc radiates across the performance space, floodlighting each twisty turn of a story that Fleming, le Carre, Fine and Friedkin wish they were talented enough to write. Yes, there is a Homeric quality to her vignette about escaping from a monster’s cave.
But, her descriptions of Jamaican cuisine are so magnificent, so mouth-watering that, if Edinburgh’s two West Indian restaurants weren’t clear across town, I’d have been running out the door like a mongoose after a juicy lizard.
Sans soul food I sit back and let the tide in the affairs of woman get taken at the flood, taken along with all the breath in my body. It’s a hackneyed phrase, but this performance was genuinely breathtaking. It was a perfect mento medley which, like a broken hand drum, can’t be beat. Like the song which inspired it’s title, Jamaica Farewell is a lament about leaving somewhere behind in order to go forward. I’m on the edge of my seat as Ehrhardt tells of how she went about fulfilling her childhood dream of escaping a troubled backwater for the promise of America.
Her path was not clear. Democratic Socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley (he who promised to walk hand in hand with Castro to the mountaintop) had built his Berlin Wall with the stroke of a pen. Making it illegal to leave Jamaica carrying more than 50 USD prevented hopeful emigrants from meeting the strict requirements for an American entry visa. Fortunately, Ehrhardt had a wealthy boss in need and a Yankee sweetheart who worked for a certain firm out of Langley, Virginia.
Jamaica Farewell is a passionate, heartfelt coming of age, flying the nest story which packs a mean look and a Walther PPK. The Caribbean is a favourite setting for spy thrillers. Fleming lived at Goldeneye. Bogart and the recently departed Lauren Bacall sailed the adventurous line between right and wrong in Morton Fine and David Friedkin’s old time radio classic Bold Venture. It’s the essence of the latter that is most perfectly captured and distilled by Ehrhardt’s sensationally animated style of storytelling.
The staging is minimal (a chair, a stool, some crates and a standing mic). Under a subdued lighting design, these bare properties are brought to life. It’s as though they’ve been tricked out of their inertia by someone with half Anansi’s limbs yet all his cunning. Joyously they morph to suggest school yard, hearth and home, hole-in-the-wall eatery, super seedy bordello, bust up old taxi. I’m still in my seat but I might just as easily have taken a trip on a sailing ship because I’ve reached Jamaica. Or was Jamaica reaching out to me?
This is a political thriller with a human face (which happens to be as handsome as was that of PM Manley himself). The soundtrack is everything an Island Records junkie could desire. Toes are tappin’. The spirit of Chris Blackwell moves among us. There are also some brilliant one liners that Bacall at her most sultry would have relished. “I found myself hypnotised by a shoebox of Benjamin Franklins.”
When she came to America Ehrhardt was frightened, she was vulnerable, but she was a determined victor, not a distraught victim. She’s might be about the most charming and beguiling storyteller at EdFringe ‘14. Yet Ehrhardt (as was also said of the late, lamented Mrs. Humphrey Bogart) possesses all the fragility of a moose.