Theater: Keisha-Gaye Anderson Interviews Debra Ehrhardt

Keisha-Gaye Anderson explains that eternal love of her homeland, Jamaica, was what inspired the play “Jamaica Farewell” and what continues to fuel the author’s creative work.  [For previous posts on the play, see Jamaica, Farewell: One-Woman Play and Theater: ‘Jamaica Farewell’ finds humor en route to America.] Here are excerpts of her interview:

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: You are obviously a very talented writer. And funny! What made you focus on these particular life experiences for your play?
Debra Ehrhardt: I’m a storyteller at heart. Jamaica Farewell was just one more narrative I had to write. It’s a chapter in Jamaica’s history that’s rarely dramatized from the point of view I chose to write from. I also thought that my experiences and the subject matter would be something Jamaicans could relate to—and they do. But, it’s also a universal story. An audience connecting to my work is important to me. Not to worry, though. There’s humor within this dramatic tale as well.

K.G.A.: Migration is as Jamaican as ackee and saltfish, and happens for different reasons. For you personally, what was it about life in Jamaica–as well as what you believed about America–that made you so determined to leave?
D.E.: Yes, life was hard when I was growing up in Jamaica, but that wasn’t the sole reason why I wanted to leave. I have always wanted to travel, to see what the world had to offer, to experience what it was like to live in another country. And I wanted to pursue an acting career as well. [. . .]

K.G.A.: What has made you hold tight to your Jamaican identity, in spite of the pressure to “blend in”?
D.E.: Pressure came and still constantly does come from all sides to conform. For example, before Jamaica Farewell took off, becoming the worldwide sensation it is today, I was told many times that it wouldn’t be accepted by the so-called “foreign crowd” because it was “too Jamaican.” Who’s laughing in whose face now? I was brought up to be proud of where I came from; my parents taught me that culture makes you who you are. It shapes your psyche. And if you throw away your culture, you throw away a big piece of who you are. That made sense to me. I love myself too much to do such harm.

K.G.A.: The title of your play intrigues me. Did you experience homesickness when first coming to the states? Have you spent much time in Jamaica since migrating and are you planning at some point to move back?
D.E.: In my mind the word “Farewell” never meant “a permanent goodbye – never to see you again.” It was like, “see ya later!” Or as I like to say, “Likkle more!” I did experience homesickness in the beginning, not wanting to return when I wanted because of either employment or educational obligations. But when things finally settled down, I began returning, and still frequently do return to Jamaica with my husband and kids. Heck I’m saving to buy property in Port Antonio. Mi nuh waan dead in America! [. . .]

K.G.A.: Jamaicans are very proud people. In your opinion, what makes Jamaica and Jamaican people stand out, especially in the arts?
D.E.: It was instilled in all of us as children to be proud of our heritage, to always do our best with what we had. What we’ve created for the entire world to see and to admire—NO ONE gave us. We did it on our own. We have the world’s fastest man (Usain Bolt), some of the greatest musical superstars (Monty Alexander, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, Third World, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, to name a few), and world-class authors (Claude McKay, Colin Channer, Roger Mais, Rachael Manley, etc.). I can go on and on. But I think I’ve made my point. We have a standard set by our own people to either maintain or to surpass.

For more about Debra Ehrhardt or Jamaica Farewell, visit her site http://jamaicafarewelltheplay.com/

For more on writer Keisha-Gaye Anderson, see http://www.keishagaye.com/

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