“Jamaica Farewell” Brings Socio-Political Issues from the Fringe to the Center
Lavern McDonald, Brooklyn New York
14 October 2007
It was Harry Belafonte who made that other “Jamaica Farewell” popular with his ambrosial voice when he helicoptered into Jamaica in the late 1970s for a performance at Addison Park in the Dry Harbor Mountains of St. Ann. Under a canopy of stars, Prime Minister Michael Manley and Jamaican nationals sat on sodden chairs and grass silvery-hued from the night-time precipitation and 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 of euphoria similar to that which swept the hills of St. Ann so many years ago. Quite the opposite.
The play gives voice to the rage and contempt felt by many of Jamaica’s middle class, generated in part by 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, 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 underway in that other un-nameable Caribbean nation-state just 90 miles to the northwest of Jamaica. Elite Jamaicans were simply following a precedent that others of their class position in the Atlantic system had forged in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Jamaica Farewell” came to the New York stage this Fall courtesy of the New York International Fringe Festival. The festival 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. The Friday event was 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, 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 latest icon of middle American taste gone global: a Starbucks coffeehouse. The character salivates at the many possible concoctions of drinks and pastries, all composed of products associated with the tropics including coffee, chocolate, sugar, and spices. Note that these products come to the U.S. market so cheaply as to grace every one of those SB drinks, primarily because of current neo-liberal economic arrangements which few, including Ms. Ernhardt, 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 America-bound forays to sample the fruit of this hemisphere’s superpower. Ehrhardt’s character exists in a liminal space. Her maternal grandparents are firmly ensconced in the elite class, while her mother’s unfortunate marriage to someone of the working classes – who also happens to be a self-medicating/self-delusional alcohol and gambling-addicted individual – drains 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 in that awkward space rooted in the naked pigmentocracy and classism in 1970s 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. 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 white one at that – a web whose sole function is to jettison her out of what she perceives as a hopeless Jamaica. And yet this is where Anancyism bares its hindparts.
Like the mythical Anansi based on the West African trickster hero that informs some of the island’s juvenile literature, Ehrhardt uses the current fascination with Jamaican vernacular, music and dance, along with Jamaican immigrants’ desire for self-affirmation, to lure them in. What the theatre-goers wander into is 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. Through another lens, the drama being staged might provide compelling evidence to support federal charges for embezzlement and trafficking.
Certainly, it is one tethered to the heightened U.S. interest in Jamaica resulting from Manley’s dance with democratic socialism, an experiment supposedly injected with political fuel from American-nemesis Fidel Castro. A cohort of critical political entities in what was the international Non-Aligned Movement also emerge as players. Ehrhardt makes her stance even clearer when she 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, that said white American, she suggests, was fully engaged with research and weekly reporting for a US-based agency. Enamoured by this man’s level of access to power, including an accelerated security clearance that had him navigating Jamaican Customs unencumbered on a weekly basis, Ernhardt snatches this opportunity and weaves to her advantage.
The plot thickens. In her desperation to flee before the communist nightmare takes hold, Ehrhardt volunteers to traffic US $1M out of Jamaica; this, in response to Manley’s banking policies aimed at containing scarce foreign exchange for importing basic goods into the country. Banks by elites and middle class alike panicked, fearing that this move was a green light to full state usurpation of their financial, residential and other resources. Her co-conspirator is her boss, an earnest and worried [Jamaican? American?] businessman, who anticipates that his relationship with his Miami-based supplier would be interrupted by the new fiscal policy.
Ehrhardt offers secondary and tertiary characters who might be familiar to students of American theater or Hollywoodized-comedic routines set in the “Third World”. 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, Mammies, and Sambos – because these social types have been named in US history, but not Jamaica’s – 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 others of her ilk, she seems completely 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”. Only in the early 1980s, these policies relegated small farmers to subsistence living in the craggy hillsides of the mostly limestone country, while keeping significant arable acreage fallow. She sees herself as completely immune to the elitism of an inherited educational system that does not see that its growth and progress is contingent on the development of all of its people. She turns a withering and scornful lens to the urban masses who make their homes in shanty towns and settlements that rival those of Brazil, South Africa and nation-states that share similar histories of uneven development. No word here about why decent housing is so hard to come by in the middle class paradise that she imagines she lost. In short, Ehrhardt clearly has no investment in a transformative world view that might inspire Jamaicans to desire and want to create a more egalitarian and just society. Its all about what should have had: which is more of the social goods, and at the expense of others.
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 Dunns 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, albeit troublesome, 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. That is, to sympathize with the privileged, and in this case, to make light of the agonies and tribulations of its intended, and captive audience, ie. Jamaican immigrants and would-be migrants – but at their expense. To many, Ernhardt’s perspective ought not to have come as a surprise. Undoubtedly, the Caribbean New York audience for this production is mixed in terms of the social backgrounds, including many who might genuinely sympathize with her. However, it is also safe to assume that most are refugees of one stripe or another from the neocolonial reorganization of the Atlantic space that is Reagan’s “Caribbean basin”. On this side of the waters where many can reconstruct their family histories to leave out the unsavory details, they can look in the mirror held up by Ernhardt and disidentify with the source of her ire – them in a past life, their own brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, relatives who might have remained back home.
The art of misrecognition is Anancyism at its finest. To be fooled into not seeing things as they are, to laugh at the reality that you think is not yours, until you have no choice but to accept the reality produced for you, however bitter and unpleasant it might be, in part because of your willing participation. This play makes a great deal of mischief by opening up an old sore that continues to fester among Jamaicans and Jamaican-Americans, gives it a voice – one that she is intimately familiar with – but where one realizes that it is a bitter, burning brew, not a healing salve that is being delivered. One can either laugh or scream; somehow we imagine that it would be undignified to do the latter and so we laugh.
And so, Ernhardt’s work – which she seems to want to propel onto an even larger stage – serves as a reminder that the legacies of the worldviews, ideas and practices that shaped the modern Jamaica, indeed the world, into “haves” and “have-nots”, are still salient for all of us, despite the hopeful claim of 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.