Chicago Theater Review: JAMAICA, FAREWELL (Royal George Theatre)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: JAMAICA, FAREWELL (Royal George Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 10, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Jamaica Farewell0464Call it a combination of Locked Up Abroad and Coming to America. In 90 gorgeously pictured minutes, “multi-racial” performer Debra Erhardt thrillingly chronicles her escape to America 35 years ago when she was 18. Her riveting narration turns a one-person odyssey into a lavish epic: It enlists our imagination from the start: We see it as we hear it and that’s why Jamaica Farewell, now at the Royal George Theatre, will linger longer than most shows.

The romantic title belies Ehrhardt’s gritty autobiographical material, a seat-of-your-pants self-exile that could easily have gone south (instead of north). Living in poverty in the Caribbean “paradise” with an overly religious mother and a tippling and gambling dad, eager to escape the bullies that beat her down, Debby had dreamed of coming to America since she was only 7. Eleven years later, now a secretary in Kingston, she sees her chance amid the chaos of Michael Manley’s 1980 socialist coup. Unable to get a student visa (the U.S. embassy is as swarmed as its Saigon counterpart had been five year before), she leaps at the chance to help her boss: He needs to defy the government’s embargo and get $1 million in American currency to Miami (a very calm courier named “Bullet”) before it’s confiscated by Manley’s minions.

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While on a providential lunch break, Debbie meets a handsome American named Jack Wallingsford, a middle-aged CIA agent with such sterling diplomatic connections he breezes through every checkpoint–roadblock or airport–with impunity. His laid-back unflappability complements her provincial enthusiasm. Exercising her considerable teenage charm, Debbie gets him to shepherd her to Miami, provided she can reach the Montego Bay airport in time for a morning flight.

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Taking up the bulk of the monologue, the action-packed tale of her tearful departure from her well-wishing mother and her bittersweet parting with her bibulous father is an odyssey to remember. Full of pluck and luck, her bus and cab journeys through the uncharted Kingston slum of Pigeon Town, late night confrontation with a monster she calls Satan, desperate visit to a sweetly accommodating whorehouse, and perilous passage through security and customs barriers in Jamaica and Florida–well, it’s an adventure that Ehrhardt, pulling potent props from treasure chests, presents with contagious excitement and Dickensian detail.

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Joel Zwick (who directed My Big Fat Greek Wedding) puts the still-young, 53-year-old Ehrhardt through some passionate paces. With a beguiling baby voice and the most hopeful face to grace a stage, she makes this Farewell performance a delicious and delightful self-exodus. In the patriotic finale on the hibiscus-laden stage, this immigrant’s triumphant arrival in America speaks for many more delivered dreams.

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photos by Chuck Osgood of Charles Osgood Photography

Jamaica, Farewell
Hershey Felder Presents
The Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted St
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on October 11, 2015
for tickets, call 312.988.9000 or visit
for more info, visit

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