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“Jamaica Farewell” Brings Socio-Political Issues From the Fringe to the Center

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Harry Belafonte who made that other “Jamaica Farewell” popular with his ambrosial voice helicoptered into Jamaica in the late 1970s for a performance and reception with Prime Minister Michael Manley and Jamaican nationals at Addison Park in the Dry Harbor Mountains of St. Ann. Under a canopy of stars, the Jamaicans who sat on sodden chairs and grass silvery-hued from the night-time precipitation swayed in time with the rhythm and sang with Belafonte when he offered “Jamaica Farewell” that evening. On succeeding Manley, Prime Minister Edward Seaga promptly rendered Belafonte persona non grata and “banned” the cultural worker from Jamaica. On September 7 – 16, the New York Fringe Festival sponsored an encore performance of Jamaican-born Debra Ehrhardt’s one-woman show, “Jamaica Farewell” at the Soho Playhouse in the West Village. While audience members laughed at and with the character, and perhaps a bit at themselves, the play clearly did not engender a feeling to parallel that which swept the hills of St. Ann so many years ago.

The play gives voice to the rage and contempt felt by many in Jamaica’s middle class emerging from the displacement and challenge of the postcolonial project as articulated by Michael Manley in the 1970s. Ehrhardt’s rage and derisiveness about that “political revolution” and what it meant for others of her ilk was – to now – only expressed in the dining rooms and drawing rooms and sunrooms of those who had escaped Jamaica for the safety of Miami Beach and other northern environs in the 1970s. After-all, to some, the political changes seemed to borrow from those in that other Caribbean nation-state just 90 miles to the northwest of Jamaica. Elite Jamaicans were simply following a precedent that others of their class in the Atlantic system had forged in the 1950s and ‘60s.

In Spheres of Existence, a collection of essays published in the 1980s, the historian CLR James articulated his perspectives on the West Indian middle classes and their role in the social organization and function of Caribbean societies. Ms. Ehrhardt’s play suggests a certain narcissistic immersion in her own subjectivity, a privilege that only few among many Caribbean people can exercise. James described a Caribbean middle class tendency to perpetuate the self-serving status quo and its benefits. In the essay, “The West Indian Middle Classes”, James wrote: “The effects of slavery and colonialism are like a miasma all around choking us. One hundred and fifty years ago, when the Nonconformists told the slave-owners, ‘You cannot continue to keep humans beings in this condition,’ all the slave-owners could reply was, ‘You will ruin the economy, and further, what can you expect from people like these?’ When you try to tell the middle classes of today, ‘Why not place responsibility for the economy on the people?’ their reply is the same as that of the old slave-owners: ‘You will ruin the economy, and further, what can you expect from people like these?’ James’ words underscore a dialectical tension that is not expressed in Ms. Ehrhardt’s play.

Ms. Ehrhardt brings to the public sphere a rage that some may have suspected but few have been directly privy to as many immigrant Jamaicans buried themselves in the opportunity for schizophrenic consumerism that is the prevailing Zeitgeist of late modern America. With the emergence of stories like Ehrhardt’s, it is possible to begin to imagine a space for dialogue between the entitled descendants of the colonial project that gave birth to the nation-state of Jamaica and those who remain marginalized by the legacies of these archaic arrangements. This is the hope of one who constantly imagines the supreme reasonableness of human beings; the opposite is the stuff of nightmares after-all.

“Jamaica Farewell” came to the New York stage this fall courtesy of the New York International Fringe Festival which typically offers a summer two-week collection of plays, musicals, magic shows, stand-up comedy, mime and other performance art. The festival emerged in the downtown Manhattan theater scene eleven years ago to support emerging artists and to give theatrical space to small acts and productions.

This reviewer saw the play on the Saturday evening before the play closed, directly following a sold-out Friday evening performance sponsored by the Jamaica Tourist Board and attended by Jamaican luminaries including outgoing Jamaican Consul General Dr. Basil K. Bryant. The Saturday evening performance opened with a welcome from the house manager, a welcome with an attendant directive that theater-goers leave quickly and quietly afterwards so as not to disturb the neighbors ensconced in the mostly federal style homes on the West Village street.

Ehrhardt’s play opens with her principal character, a middle-class brown Jamaican-American immigrant, wrestling with the range of choices afforded her via the menu at the most latest symbol of globalization in an American cloak, a Starbucks coffeehouse. The character salivates at the many possible concoctions of drinks and pastries, all composed of tropical products including coffee, chocolate, sugar, and spices – all products that come to the U.S. market more cheaply because of current neo-liberal economic arrangements that few are aware of much less able to question.

The play then takes us into memory, a temporal arc of the character’s development on the island of Jamaica firmly in the throes of political and social reorganization. The opening salvo announces Jamaica’s stratified class and color structure and locates the character within that sphere. We are then introduced to her Jamaican childhood, one cultivated at Kingston’s St. George’s School – established at the turn of the last century primarily for the island’s Anglican Church-affiliated elite — where recreation for the girls is defined by Disney characters and northbound forays to sample the fruit of this hemisphere’s superpower.

Ehrhardt’s character exists in a liminal space in that her maternal grandparents are firmly ensconced in the elite class while her mother’s unfortunate marriage to someone of the lower class – who also happens to be a self-medicating/self-delusional alcohol- and gambling-addicted individual – reduces the family’s cachet and material opportunities. Ehrhardt’s father is an object of contempt, and later pity, as the daughter reconciles her fate as a toe-holder on that awkward space rooted in the naked colorism and classism in 1970s Jamaica.

The adolescent ingenue quickly morphs into an individual who finds her environment stifling to the point of madness. She coquettishly seduces a visiting American into her web, a web whose sole function is to jettison her out of what she perceives as a hopeless Jamaica.

With her stunning sculpted face described in her playbill as stemming from her multiracial background, and her physical and verbal theatrical language, Ms. Ehrhardt sells her audience on what in some terms might simply be a madcap adventure of a young girl consumed with the myths and culture of migration. By other lens, however, some might find evidence to support state charges for embezzlement and trafficking. Like the mythical Anansi based on the West African trickster hero that informs some of the island’s juvenile literature, Ehrhardt uses the rich Jamaican vernacular, music and dance to lure theatre-goers into a narrative that if stripped down to a politico-legalistic skeleton might have some wondering about statutes of limitations on public confessions to crimes against the state.

The audience is unwittingly drawn into a drama that is tethered to the heightened U.S. interest in Jamaica resulting from Manley’s dance with democratic socialism supposedly injected with political fuel from American-nemesis Fidel Castro and a cohort of critical political entities in what was the international Non-Aligned Movement. Ehrhardt casually suggests that the United States took a proactive and aggressive role in its efforts to stave off a march toward communism in the Atlantic just south of its borders. Her prey, the American, she suggests, was fully engaged with research and weekly reporting perhaps to an agency station in Miami. Ehrhardt was taken with this man’s level of access, including an accelerated security clearance that had him navigating Jamaican customs unencumbered on a weekly basis; this is an opportunity that Ehrhardt weaves to her advantage.

Ehrhardt volunteers to traffic US $1M out of Jamaica in response to Manley’s banking policies aimed at containing scarce foreign exchange for critical imports, a policy which spurred a run on banks by elites and middle class alike which feared that this move was a precursor to full state usurpation of their financial, residential and other resources. Her co-conspirator is her boss, an earnest and worried businessman, who anticipates that his relationship with his Miami-based supplier would be interrupted by the new fiscal policy.

Ehrhardt’s suggested secondary and tertiary characters would probably be familiar to students of historical American theater. The masses with whom Ehrhardt by way of diminished circumstance is forced to share transactional spaces, including public transportation and such, are all very black, very super-sized, very loud, very odiferous and very predatory. These Bucks, Coons, Mamies, and Sambos invade Ehrhardt’s life at every turn. Her olfactory space is violated by super-rancid body odors stemming from beings that have sweat glands-on-overdrive where mere mortals do not even have said glands. She is pursued by a demonic dreadlocked character inflated no doubt by a bit of literary magical realism who threatens to sodomize her. She gets a taxi ride through the dark from a cruiser with a big spliff as she attempts to escape machete-wielding beings who seem to shift shape in the dark. Her path through a market bus is rendered inconveniently impassable by the enormous boxes and baskets of contemptible higgler women. She overnights in a bordello where she is privy to the sounds of individuals in the throes of myriad hyper-sexual encounters. The single Asian character is represented as a stealthy and conniving “Chinieman” who lurks about the Miami International Airport — two teeth to his name, a single set of top and bottom incisors — the bagman at the end of Ehrhardt’s chain of adventures.

While Ehrhardt contemplates what Manley’s “political revolution” represents for her and her class, she is blind to the schizophrenia of a country whose lack of food security is tied to the import-export culture born during the era of “King Sugar” and underscored by the then current practice of keeping significant arable acreage fallow and relegating small farmers to the subsistence opportunities in the craggy hillsides of the mostly limestone country. She is equally immune to the elitist nature of an inherited educational system that does not see that its growth and progress is contingent on the development of all its people. She has a withering lens for the urban masses who make their homes in favellas and settlements that rival those of Brazil, South Africa and nation-states that share similar historical development. Ehrhardt clearly has no investment in a transformative world view that might inspire Jamaicans to organize a more egalitarian and just society.

The content and message not withstanding, Ehrhardt is evidently an earnest practitioner of her craft. Her directing and staging team offered huge supports for the project. Director Monique Lai, a Fine Arts photographer, challenged Ehrhardt to use every possible aspect of the stage frame. A visit to world famous Dunn’s River Falls with her unwitting prey — “the American, the arachnid Ehrhardt lolls on top of chairs in a sultry and suggestive pose akin to that of a bikini model reclining on sand. The lighting and sound complement the play richly, thanks to sound artist Danny Ehrhardt. Successive visits to the U.S. Embassy in Kingston in pursuit of an elusive visa to travel to the “States” is navigated by a narrow corridor of light and punctuated by a slam, signaling yet another failed attempt.

Clearly “turnin’ her hand to mek fashion” – as Manley implored Jamaicans to do in a spirit of self reliance — in an American theater scene that has had little room for her , Ehrhardt makes an interesting contribution with “Jamaica Farewell”. Departing significantly from the postcolonial, radical and multicultural traditions that inform much of New York theater today, Ehrhardt’s story – from her brown and middle class vantage – challenges the playgoer to assume a curious and awkwardly critical lens on the content of the play. No doubt, the Caribbean New York audience is a mixed population but most, it is safe to assume, are refugees of one stripe or another from the neocolonial reorganization of the Atlantic space. Ehrhardt’s play should serve as a reminder that the ideas and practices that shaped the modern world and the entitlements and provisions accrued by some at the expense of others and the lasting legacy of these world views, attitudes, practices and privileges are mighty salient issues that still pose significant challenge to creeds like Jamaica’s National Motto, “Out of Many, One People”.

Post Script: Irving Burgie (aka Erving Burgess) wrote the lyrics for “Jamaica Farewell”, a song popularized by the dulcet-voiced Harry Belafonte. The song is a study in nostalgia for a bucolic Jamaica. The lyrics and music are available from Burgie, I. (1972). The West Indian Song Book for Group and Community Singing. New York: Caribe Music Corp

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