I have very recently come across Basil Wilson’s feature article/review of Debra Erhardt’s one-woman play Jamaica Farewell for your publication, and although the facetious headline (“Farewell Jamaica Farewell) gave me pause, I was ill prepared for the perplexing and surprisingly racist tone that permeated the article.
Mr. Wilson makes various sweeping statements to bolster his negative appraisal of the play: “All the Jamaican characters are in a pathological state” BUT “the American figures are painted in a savory light.” To reinforce his argument about the negatively drawn Jamaican characters he refers to “three machete wielding men,” to “smelly and unwashed market women,” and “a dreadlocked rapist,” as evidence of Ms. Erhardt’s racism rather than a description of real events. He refers (as further evidence of the negative view of Jamaicans) to Ms. Erhardt’s mother as “a pathetic reader of scripture.” He ignores the fact that Jamaica Farewell is not a work of fiction but the actual odyssey of a seventeen year old girl. Neither the machete wielding men nor the dreadlocked rapist sprang from Ms. Erhardt’s imagination. They are real and the encounters happened. And as to the description of the market women: is it inaccurate? I wonder when Mr. Wilson last traveled on a rural bus in Jamaica.
Instead of admiring the resourcefulness of a courageous, seventeen year-old girl, Mr. Wilson chooses to chastise her for what he calls her “subtle racism”. Would he have preferred her to alter reality? Make her encounters less traumatic? For what purpose? To encourage tourism? After all, Ms. Erhardt did not say that all Jamaicans wielded machetes or were dreadlocked rapists, only the three machete wielders and the dreadlocked rapist she encountered. To have revised the reality of these events would have been the true racism.
Mr. Wilson appears to suggest that should a Jamaican write in any negative manner about the society from which they come they do so because of innate racism. What is racist about Ms. Erhardt’s description of her mother whom Mr. Wilson contemptuously calls a “pathetic reader of scripture”? What I derived from the portrait was a dignified woman who has retreated into herself as her defense against a ne’er-do-well drunkard of a husband—as women all over the world, with or without the Bible, have done for centuries. And her father? He was a drunken gambler. Not because he was Jamaican but because he was a pathetic drunk. And her employer? He seemed to me to be a concerned if naïve individual. He worried as much about the danger this seventeen year old was going to face as the risk he was taking entrusting her with his million dollars.
However, what I found to be the most outrageous charge in this article was that, in contrast to the “pathological” Jamaicans, all the American figures are portrayed in a “savory” light. As I recall the play, there was only one American character, the blonde C.I.A. Agent who struck me as being vain and arrogant, displaying his blondness like a badge of sexual superiority. Did Mr. Wilson and I see the same play?
Finally, in the course of the article, some remarkably uninformed remarks are made regarding black artists and their persecution because of their fight against racism. That old stand-by Paul Robeson is cited yet again to support the premise. Paul Robeson undeniably suffered persecution but he lost his passport not because of his resistance to racial oppression but because of his embrace of Stalin and the Soviet Union. And Robeson was not alone. Many artists at that time—by the way, most of them white—suffered a similar fate for their left-wing politics. Not for their resistance to racism.
Further, much of what Mr. Wilson write about Michael Manley is inaccurate. I greatly admired, and still do, his noble aspirations for the island. I knew him from the time we were both schoolboys at Jamaica College in Kingston, where I grew up. I had high hopes for his government but one cannot deny or ignore the roadblocks, the violence, the collapse of peaceful living, that occurred during his government. And it is absurd to say that before he was elected “democratic legitimacy had disappeared.” If that was the case Michael could not possibly have been elected.
In closing I feel it necessary to state that my remarks and my defense of Jamaica Farewell come from my very long experience as a theatre professional.
I have directed ten Broadway plays; twelve plays in London’s West End; and any number of plays in regional theatres across the United States. I have been the recipient of a Tony award, a Joseph Jefferson award, and a Dramalogue award—among others.
I think I know what I am talking about. Mr. Wilson owes Ms. Erhardt an apology.