An established Twin Cities theater company – say the Guthrie, Mixed Blood, the Jungle or Penumbra – should bring Debra Ehrhardt (above) back to Minnesota for a proper run of her exquisite show, “Jamaica Farewell.”
On Sunday, the writer and performer delivered a tour-de-force performance of her autobiographical one-woman play. The minimalist production, presented by the Jamaica Minnesota Organization at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, comes with just a few props. And the lighting is not much to speak of.
But what her show lacks in design elements, Los Angeles-based Ehrhardt more than makes up for in spell-binding performance. Using cadence, intonation and gesture, she summons a whole community of people to the stage. All of them help to tell her dreamy story of wanting to come to America.
“Farewell” is really an adventure tale. Ehrhardt, who speaks with sophisticated, lyrical syncopation, had a poor upbringing in Jamaica. She lived with her alcoholic father and deeply religious mother. Her most fervent desire is to move to America, a feeling that intensifies in the 1970s as her country is flooded with weapons because the U.S. is fearful that Jamaica may go communist like Cuba, next door.
After repeated attempts to get a visa, including once pretending to be a nun, Ehrhardt finally gets her chance to leave to emigrate via a CIA agent with diplomatic cover. But she meets lots of challenges, including a life-threatening one, on the night before she is to leave.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that “Farewell,” named for a song popularized by Harry Belafonte in the 1960s, is so engaging. The show has had stellar notices. The Chicago Sun-Times recently gushed about the actor’s ability to “fill up empty space with the sheer power of her exuberant storytelling.” The New Yorker called the show “powerful.” And the Los Angeles Times calls it “winning.”
“Farewell” does have captivating talent. Hollywood director Joel Zwick of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame staged it with propulsive momentum. And its star is a high cheek-boned multiracial looker who has been dubbed Jamaica’s Halle Berry.
But Ehrhardt does not lean on charisma alone. She is totally committed to evoking each character in her story and does so with aplomb.The end result is so in the moment and wittily engrossing, you half expect a big supporting cast to join her as she takes her well-earned bows.
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