Debra Ehrhardt Brings Her Award-Winning Refugee Tale to Philly
“Listen: I was half a hair away from getting raped and murdered,” acclaimed actress and performer Debra Ehrhardt tells me. “I had a million U.S. dollars in cash in a bag. I had to bring it to someone across the border.” She laughs, as she does quite often when she tells her story. “It was the only time in my life I ever saw a million dollars! Nowadays, I don’t even like to have $200 in my bag!”
But when Ehrhardt escaped socialist Jamaica in the early 1970s, she was only 18 years old. “You think you’re invincible and that you’re never gonna die,” she says, a theme that she explores in her award-winning one-woman show Jamaica, Farewell, which she’s bringing to Philadelphia for the first time in June. It’s the real-life tale of her heroic escape from Jamaica told through 20 different characters, all played by Ehrhardt, on an empty stage with several black boxes and a handful of sound cues. However, even though the stage may be scarce, the story is where its at.
“I started making up stories when I was a very young age, so I’ve had many years of practice,” she says. “I can’t cook or clean or iron like many girls do, but I can tell a story. The main goal of a solo performer is not to bore people. I’ve seen thousands of plays, and more than 50 percent of them are not memorable, and I think a lot people would have that same conclusion. I want to make sure that when you see this Jamaican girl’s play you’re going to remember it!”
Part of the reason why Jamaica, Farewell is so memorable is because it has a huge, huge heart: Ehrhardt created the work herself. She started writing her own story because she was told again and again that her Jamaican accent, and her looks, would prevent her from getting stage work.
“I looked too white or I didn’t look white enough or I didn’t look black enough,” she says. “Some people think I’m white because I have blue eyes. I don’t look like Bob Marley. I’m white, Spanish, Jewish, and black. People look at me and ask, ‘Is she putting on an accent?’ They think I’m faking it. They’ll ask me, ‘Are you really Jamaican?’ Well, if I’m gonna put on an accent, it’s not gonna be a Jamaican one because it ain’t gonna get me anywhere!”
Her writing worked. She’s been performing the solo show for over nine years now, and the play has won numerous awards and honors, including a 2007 Proclamation from the City of New York for her “Outstanding Contribution to the Jamaican Community,” a 2007 NYC Fringe festival award, and she was nominated by the Actor’s Boy Awards in Kingston, Jamaica for Best Actress and for Best Drama. In essence, it’s a timeless story about how everyone has a dream.
“But, most people don’t have to go through a socialist revolution to get what they want,” Ehrhardt adds. “There are a lot of themes that I touch on—desire for a better life, family dysfunction, forgiveness, and triumph over adversity. It touches on everything. No matter where you come from, people desire for a better life.”
It’s those common themes that keeps people captivated when they see Jamaica, Farewell: Ehrhardt just played sold-out houses in California. Even though she’s been performing the show for nearly ten years, she is still so appreciative of her audiences and those who come to hear her story.
“I always meet people after the show because I am so grateful that they actually come see me,” she says. “If I’m gonna get up on a stage and people are going to buy a ticket, and they’re gonna get dressed and in get in a car and drive and park and take all of that time out of their lives, I’ve got to deliver.”
Deliver she does, as audiences will see once she gets to Philly. Ironically enough, even though Ehrhardt has never performed in the city, there is something pretty special about her return to Philadelphia that she was sure to tell me about right away when we talked: Her daughter went to the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s just unbelievable,” she says. “I’m just a poor Jamaican, and here my first American daughter ends up going to UPenn. It’s the most amazing country in the world. I have two children that don’t have to go through what I went through.”
Jamaica, Farewell plays the Annenberg Center on June 13th at both 5 pm and 8 pm. For tickets and more information, click here.