Christine Dolen

Actress shares her American dream in ‘Jamaica Farewell’

Debra Ehrhardt shares her singular coming-to-America story in ‘Jamaica Farewell’ at Empire Stage.
Debra Ehrhardt shares her singular coming-to-America story in ‘Jamaica Farewell’ at Empire Stage.

For people from all over the world, Miami — diverse, glamorous, sometimes dangerous — has often served as a portal from an old life to a new one.

Debra Ehrhardt is one who walked through that door on shaky legs, her heart pounding, with a million bucks concealed in the duffel bag she took on her first plane trip.

Ehrhardt recounts the journey from her birthplace to a fresh start in America in Jamaica Farewell, a beguiling solo show she’s now performing at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage. This touring production is her third play, after Mango, Mango and Invisible Chairs, and whatever dramatic license she applied in turning her life into art pays off. Jamaica Farewell is funny, engaging and irresistible.

Staged by Joel Zwick, the director of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Ehrhardt’s play tracks her nearly lifelong drive to come to the United States. She sketches in the details of her past, including a gambling-addicted drunken father who looked like Elvis and sounded like Bob Marley, and a religious mother whose serene faith in the face of adversity got the family through an endless succession of financial crises.

Jamaica Farewell doesn’t really take off, though, until Ehrhardt gets to the meat of the play. Working as an unhappy secretary during the turbulent years when Prime Minister Michael Manley was shaking up the country’s entrenched socioeconomic system, the 18-year-old beauty caught the attention of a handsome CIA agent, a man who was always waived through immigration and customs on his frequent trips between Jamaica and Miami.

Light bulb moment: Maybe he could be her ticket out. And at that moment, her boss needs to get $1million cash smuggled to Miami in order to keep his business going. Ehrhardt volunteers, convincing her in-the-dark beau that she wants to go with him on a short visit to Florida. The rest of the story involves a car crash, two frightening bus rides and a fiery narrow escape from a would-be rapist she dubs “Lucifer.”

For all that harrowing conflict, Jamaica Farewell is largely a warm-hearted look at a then-naïve young woman’s determination to live her version of the American dream. Ehrhardt, a luminous presence who has performed her play many times in many places, knows how to deliver a comic zinger (Jamaica Farewell is loaded with them) as well as making theatergoers share in more deeply emotional moments.

A dark-haired woman with a dancer’s body, a musical accent and haunting blue eyes, Ehrhardt easily holds the audience’s attention as she brings a whole world to life on an almost-barren stage, conjuring her younger self, her parents, that company man and a host of other characters.

Anyone can relate to her story, but the folks in the audience with ties to Jamaica get an extra layer of enjoyment from it, murmuring at the name of an upscale restaurant, laughing at the image of a 90-year-old taxi driver surrounded by a cloud of ganja smoke, muttering as the Manley years are recalled.

Ehrhardt has lived in the United States since making that long-ago journey from Montego Bay to Miami. But with Jamaica Farewell she demonstrates that a trip through time to a place called home is not just possible but most entertaining.

If you go

What: ‘Jamaica Farewell’ by Debra Ehrhardt.

Where: Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 19.

Cost: $35.

Information: 954-678-1496 or www.empirestage.com.

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