John Johnson’s Response to Basil Wilson’s Review of Jamaican Farewell

Humans crave art, regardless of what form it’s presented in: music, books, photography, canvas, film or live performance. They know when they’re in the presence of a masterpiece, simply by their interactive experience with it. The work of art in question arrests the clatter of the viewers mind; it transports them from their everyday distractions to a different time and place. They experience a vast array of emotions for this brief moment in time, from unbridled joy to deep sorrow. They also get to purge pent up emotions their daily lives might prevent them from doing.

Jamaica Farewell, the masterpiece written and performed by Debra Ehrhardt (this is the correct spelling of her last name), and directed by Monique Lai, satisfies the above. They have honored their contract with the audience – several thousand strong.

A September 21st, 2007 review of the play by Basil Wilson warrants a response and – apologies to both Debra Ehrhardt and Monique Lai, both of whom are “Jamaican,” I might add, regardless of the percentage of melanin or lack thereof in their skin, which Basil Wilson has a problem with and has made an issue.

We wouldn’t be having this discourse if the NAACP award winning actress, Debra Ehrhardt, was of a darker complexion, one approved by Basil Wilson . Not only is Basil Wilson’s commentary racist and insulting to Debra, Monique, and to the thousands of intelligent fans of the play, it is laden with ideological red-herrings, thus revealing Basil Wilson’s deep-seated prejudices and insecurities. Furthermore, his critique of Jamaica Farewell is absurd, thus begging the question…what play did Basil Wilson see that his critique is based on?

Basil Wilson mean-spiritedly demeans actress, Debra Ehrhardt, another human being, just like himself, infused with hopes, dreams, and a spirit, labeling her as “bi-racial.” All Jamaicans, unless they are of direct maroon descent, are bi- if not multi-racial. Jamaicans come in all shades, shapes, sizes, and biological compositions, accompanied by a myriad of perspectives. These differences coagulate as one, giving Jamaica its intoxicating beauty and mystique, creating that all-inclusive consciousness – a “Jamaican Consciousness,” hence the motto – “Out of Many – One People

There are those that receive sado-masochistic pleasure when they take great strides to divide Jamaicans and forcibly keep them apart. This is sad. Jamaica Farewell’s immense success is based on Debra Ehrhardt’s amazing skills in captivating an audience for over ninety uninterrupted minutes, “not” on her outward appearance.

The viewer brings to a work of art preconceived expectations, biases, beliefs, values, prejudices, and much more. He/she uses them as filters (if they choose to) through which they view and interpret the creative piece they are in awe of. Sometimes they are aware of these filters, and other times not. Art is powerful enough to unearth what we try to consciously deny or unconsciously suppress, thus forcing us to examine them and ourselves. This is the healing aspect of art, in that we are offered this introspective moment, this opportunity to grow within.

People are free to criticize; it’s their right. But they have to be able to objectively support their assertions. Basil Wilson makes several claims which are baseless and ridiculous. For example, he says,”…it is not happenstance that all the black characters are depicted as pathological savages….” Jamaica Farewell absolutely makes NO derogatory reference towards black people. The topic of race is never mentioned throughout the entire play except when one character is described as being Chinese. Basil Wilson brought his insecurities and false assumptions into the theatre and used them as filters in which to view the play. He then has the audacity to commit his prejudices to paper for all to read, expecting the reader to fall mindlessly in line with them.

Basil Wilson further alleges that, “…all the Jamaican characters portrayed by Debra Ehrhardt are in a pathological state. Her father is a hopeless gambling drunkard. Her mother is a pathetic reader of scripture…” This is – a true story – from the acclaimed actress’ life. We do meet colorful characters throughout our journey in this world. It’s a reality. These characters may change as we get to know them, or they remain the same. We have no control over this. I’m sure, like all of us, if Mr. Wilson looked at his own family, he might find some ‘characters.’

Basil Wilson neglects to say that the maid Debra mentioned in the play left Jamaica, just as Debra wanted to do, received a degree from the prestigious Howard University and carved out a successful life for herself. Furthermore, Basil Wilson failed to see the humanity oozing from Debra’s father when she visits him for the last time. In his drunken condition he marshals the will to allow his love and heart to shine through. This intimate touching scene moved the audience to tears – night after night.

Who does Mr. Wilson think he is to launch a vile attack against Debra and her family labeling Debra’s mother, ‘ a pathetic reader of scripture?’ The perceptive audience understands that Debra’s mother is the opposite of pathetic. Her inner strength has had a powerful influence on Debra and made her who she is. When the actress recounted a biblical phrase taught to her by her mom – night after night, without skipping a beat – the audience recited along in unison. Perhaps Mr. Wilson would call the entire room pathetic.

For a story to connect with an audience it must have a context. Jamaica Farewell’s context is indeed set in the late 1970s, a turbulent period in Jamaica’s history. Rich and poor alike, educated or illiterate, people of all persuasions had a burning urge to flee. This is a fact. And like so many others, Debra Ehrhardt, too, had that desire to leave Jamaica in search of a better life. This is the plays dramatic premise.

Debra Ehrhardt stands alone on stage, accompanied by three props and a black background. She spellbinds the audience, holding them captive for ninety minutes. And like the pied-piper she takes them along her journey. Whatever emotions she feels, so did the audience. After experiencing the play one is left with no choice but to root for this character.

Jamaica Farewell is a tightly crafted story. And this is the reason it has made history by being the – first – Jamaican off-Broadway play. This play is not just for the fans of live theatre. Aspiring writers of any genre should see it in order to learn and to witness the time-tested Aristotelian principles of dramatic writing in action.

I am a Jamaican and have seen the play numerous times. And I must say that the play is really about a woman with a focused desire to achieve a dream, refusing to let anything get in her way. Debra Ehrhardt did accomplish that goal. And when she arrived to the USA she had other goals she wanted to make a reality, for example, becoming an actress. There were setbacks along the way, people telling her that her accent is a hindrance, her “look” (whatever that is and means) was not quite American, and much more.

The average person would have given up, but no, not Ms. Debra Ehrhardt. She refused to allow people to define who she is and to tell her what she is capable and not capable of doing and becoming. She took matters – her career – into her hands, and began writing roles for herself. She continues to do so – and is literally writing herself Broadway!

We all can learn from this woman! Take action, become the person you want to be and become!

Out of Many – One!

John G. Johnson