"Jamaica, Farewell" a show title with a judiciously placed comma but very little in the way of a set or other trappings, is one woman's first-person story of her determination to leave the Caribbean island of her birth and find her way to a new life in America. Sure, it's hardly news that many immigrants risk life and limb — and leave those people and places they love — to get to a country that still acts as a global beacon for freedom and prosperity, whatever political shadows might temporarily obscure the light. But it is routinely forgotten. Here are 90 highly enjoyable minutes that might help you remember.
There's a lot of talk about internationalism in Chicago at present. Well, "Jamaica, Farewell," which has arrived here from Los Angeles (under the skilled direction of Joel Zwick, of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" repute), is a different kind of international show, but one just as potent and revealing of global forces as a window into some distant land. This is a tale of dislocation, a story about an ordinary person whose aspirations don't contradict her love of home. And the person in question, actress Debra Ehrhardt, is so sincere and honest, so clear-eyed and unshakably resolute, it is easy to connect with her experience with genuinely surprising intensity — even if your own experience of Jamaica mostly involved Apple Vacations, the beach at Negril and a few buckets of Red Stripe. Perchance a few NATO heads of states will find their way to Wicker Park and see what it's like to run on nothin' more than your own force of will.
And let me further recommend a trip to the Chopin Theatre for anyone operating in discouraged or frustrated mode. Nobody promised that a worthy stay on this earth was easy, and Ehrhardt's story is fundamentally an ode to sheer personal determination. Those in life who know what they want and don't stop until they get it are rare, lucky creatures, but the "don't stop" part kills off plenty of us along the way. Ehrhardt, not so much.
This may sound like some earnest immigrant narrative, especially since the antagonist in Ehrhardt's story is mostly a combination of Michael Norman Manley and the CIA, during Manley's first stint as Jamaican prime minister from 1972-1980. Therein, Manley (who later modified his views) became enamored of Fidel Castro, which did not sit well Stateside, given that the U.S. government wasn't looking for two communist Caribbean islands on its doorstep. It's widely assumed that the CIA played some kind of covert role in ginning up the domestic opposition to Manley, and it's that turmoil, which roiled the ordinary way of life in Kingston town, that forms the backdrop for Ehrhardt's story of departure (which has shades of a Cuban escape, even if Manley never went as far as Castro when it came to restrictions on freedom). It not a simplistic story. Ehrhardt uses a smitten and thus injudicious CIA agent to get her out of Jamaica, even as his work is arguably giving her more of a reason to leave.
Despite the intensity of the stakes, "Jamaica, Farewell" actually is a very funny and fast-paced piece (four mature ladies with hints of Jamaican accents sitting behind me Friday night acquired grins at the start of the show that never left their faces, and I kept checking). It is told with the irreverence of a story by Ian Fleming, the James Bond creator who, interestingly enough, loved Jamaica. A teenage Ehrhardt makes her exit while trying to smuggle out $1 million in cash, trying to help a struggling Kingston business buy supplies in Miami, despite the new restrictions of the Manley government. Her departure is one of mostly comic misadventures — involving farm animals, dead ends, buses, taxis, planes and frantic, daring deeds. But just as you start to laugh, Ehrhardt will sock you in the gut, throwing out a scene where she fights off a rapist who almost kills her, or a really touching little moment when she confronts her hopelessly drunken father. It's a small story of triumph over huge adversity, even if you and she constantly fear that the end result will not be all she hopes. It sits well in Chicago, where we like this kind of thing.
I'd argue a few visuals — a modest backdrop suggesting the island, rather than a cold, white screen — would enhance this very simple piece, which already has a very clear physical language. It would also be worth taking another pass through the script, plugging some narrative holes and deeping the moral and racial implications of Ehrhardt's journey. And the ending is abrupt, even if the Friday night encore, which offered up one reason why all this was worth it, went down very well with those grinning Jamaican ladies.
But whatever your point of origin, be it ten thousand or ten miles from Wicker Park, you'll likely find yourself staring at Ehrhardt, who is uncommonly beautiful, and musing on how the world kicks out remarkable people who refuse to stay where they are put. America is far luckier than it realizes that so many of them want to come here.
When: Through May 27
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 mins.