jamacaBy Michael Aushenker

Debra Ehrhardt remembers a painful period in her professional life when the struggling actress lived in New York decades ago and her Jamaican accent was closing doors.
Heeding some ultimately bad career advice, she had taken lessons to scrub out her Kingston cadence, but that made little difference at auditions.
“The casting director would say, ‘Now try it with your American accent.’ That was the American accent!” Ehrhardt recalled, now with a hearty laugh.
Cut to 2013, and Ehrhardt has for five years been performing a successful one-woman show in which she can not only be herself but play herself, too.
“Jamaica Farewell,” written and performed by Ehrhardt and presented by the Jamaica Cultural Alliance Los Angeles, returns to the Santa Monica Playhouse on Saturday and Sunday.
For the past several years, her play has been directed by Joel Zwick, creator of the phenomenally successful film “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding.”
In “Jamaica Farewell,” Ehrhardt, today in her 50s, recounts a time when she was an 18-year-old secretary in Kingston and a chance meeting with a CIA agent over a bowl of oxtail soup led to a precarious departure from her native country during a time of great political unrest. Her exodus from Jamaica included her agreeing to smuggle $1 million cash to Miami under the nose of said CIA agent.
“Wealthy, educated people were leaving,” Ehrardt said of a time when the country’s the then-prime minister had aligned himself with Cuba and began enforcing all manner of restrictions.
“No one could take $50 out of the country or you’d be thrown in jail,” she explained, making the million dollars she stashed all the more harrowing. “I narrowly escaped rape and death. But I made it!”
Ehrhardt can look back at all of her obstacles with humor now, but there was a time when things weren’t so funny. She came from a lower-income home where her father was an abusive alcoholic, and in a society where a social class system encouraged people to be content with their lot and not try to transcend their income bracket.
As a very young girl, she began acting out anecdotes as a means of escape.
“I started telling stories when I was 4 years old in a mango tree in Jamaica,” she said—adding that the performances proved so popular with local kids that she started charging five cents a head.
After her tumultuous teenage journey from Kingston to Miami, she attended school in Detroit and New York to become a nurse while pursuing acting on the side. She headed to Los Angeles in the 1990s.
A 2007 New York City Fringe festival award-winner, Ehrhardt has written three long-running autobiographical one-woman plays in the past decade and a half. Her debut show, “Mango Mango,” captured Ehrhardt’s experience “as a child looking out at the world thinking it was this way but it really was not that way.” “Invisible Chairs,” the story of her alcoholic father, was staged by David Strasberg, son of Lee Strasberg, at the elder Strasberg’s famed Strasberg Institute of Theater and Film in West Hollywood. And Ehrhardt has performed “Jamaica Farewell” all over the country as well as in Bermuda, Costa Rica, Mexico and Jamaica.
After this weekend’s string of performances, the show will go on a brief hiatus, reopening Feb. 8 at Santa Monica Playhouse to continue its indefinite run.
In Santa Monica, Ehrhardt has been receiving positive feedback from people of all ethnicities who relate to the universal aspects of the immigrant’s journey.
Three years ago, two audience members had more than kudos to give.
Actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson liked “Jamaica Farewell” so much that they optioned the film rights, which led to Zwick directing her one-woman show. Wilson’s Greek heritage had led to the Hanks’ production company, Playtone, to distribute the independently produced “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” the largest-grossing comedy of all time.
Ehrhardt is currently “keeping her fingers crossed” as she writes her screenplay for a film adaption she hopes Playtone will bring to the multiplexes.
Dorothy McCleod, executive director of the nonprofit Jamaica Cultural Alliance, said Jamaican-Americans are among Ehrardt’s biggest supporters.
“There are many myths, misrepresentations and negative stereotyping [of Jamaicans].  Debra, in her one-woman presentations, has displayed that graciousness and gentility, creativity, brilliance and wit that is very much a part of who Jamaicans are and strive to be. She exemplifies that lemons-into-lemonade trait which is instilled in us from birth,” McCleod said.
Ehrardt said she finds it hard to relate to complaints about hardships in the U.S.
“The opportunities here and the open-mindedness of the people,” she said. “If you work hard, you can get anything you want. You just have to be willing to risk everything and work hard for it.”
Ehrardt still marvels over her amazing journey and how far she has come from that little girl sitting in the mango tree.
“I love telling stories and doing what I’m doing,” she said.
Erhardt performs “Jamaica Farewell” at 3 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. $35. Call (800) 838-3006 or visit jamaicafarewelltheplay.com.
Michael(at)argonautnews.com

Share