Arts Desk

Farewell Jamaica, Hello Hollywood: An Interview With Debra Ehrhardt

Twenty years ago, Debra Ehrhardt left Jamaica for Miami with a pocketful of dreams and a bag full of smuggled cash.  Though she is leery of putting an exact number on it—federal agencies tend to bristle at currency trafficking—Ehrhardt says the sum, in dollars, ran to seven digits. That journey, like so much of Ehrhardt’s life, often sounded like something out of a movie.

Soon, it will be.

Ehrhardt’s memorable tale of immigration and naturalization formed the basis for her one-woman show, Jamaica Farewell. Fringe Festival audiences in D.C. and New York responded warmly (our critic wrote that “Ehrhardt possesses a rare ability to mesmerize”), and a subsequent run in Los Angeles attracted the attention of producer Rita Wilson, who has optioned Ehrhardt’s story for a film treatment. Wilson attended the L.A. performance with her husband, Tom Hanks; Ehrhardt suspected she had made an impression when the couple led a standing ovation after the curtain. (If you missed the show during its ‘09 Cap Fringe run, you’ll get another shot this Sunday, when the Jamaica Cultural Alliance hosts Ehrhardt for a one-off performance at the Rockville JCC.)

Ehrhardt’s version of the fringe-darling-makes-good story is particularly satisfying to behold because of how it rides and extends the message of her show. Ehrhardt was 18 when she ran cash as a means of reaching America. “I was young and stupid because when you’re 18, you think you’re invincible,” Ehrhardt says. “I was nearly murdered and raped and I was willing to take the chance to get to America.” While Ehrhardt’s show is rich with comedy—an early moment finds her eating goat testicles with an agent from the CIA—we also get a vivid sense of the horrors from which all that humor is an escape. Her father was a “drunk and a gambler,” her hopes of being something other than a maid essentially nil. America did what it does best: it beckoned.

“You have to remember, America is Disneyland, especially if you come from a poor family in a third-world country,” Ehrhardt says. “But even when I graduated theater school in New York many years ago, they told me I would never get a job with my Jamaican accent. My agent said to me, ‘go get speech classes.’ And I don’t have dread locks, so there aren’t roles for a woman who looks like me.”

Ehrhardt laughs. “But ‘never’ is a word that Jamaicans don’t understand. If you say we’re never gonna get to do something, we’re gonna find a way to prove you wrong.”

Students of the feel-good immigration story should note that Ehrhardt found a producer to steer the project who was uniquely suited to it: Wilson’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a mini-budget smash that became the top-grossing romantic comedy ever. There is also talk of bringing on Joel Zwick, who directed Greek Wedding. The production team, in other words, should be more than qualified to deal with any and all goat-related joke material. Ehrhardt, meanwhile, gets first crack at the screenplay.

“If it’s cast well, it will be just as good or even better than the play,” she says.

The Jamaica Cultural Alliance presents Jamaica Farewell at the Rockville JCC Kreeger Theatre at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20. 1-800-838-3006. 6521 Montrose Road Rockville, MD 20852. $35

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