Review: Jamaica Farewell at the Fringe Building

Friday night found me flying solo to the Indianapolis opening of Jamaica Farewell, at the indyFringe Building in Indianapolis downtown on Mass Ave. The play, which runs for two more weekends in this downtown Indianapolis cultural district, is based on true events from the life of writer and actor Debra Erhardt. The fifth of five one actor shows to grace Indianapolis arts in the past two months, Jamaica Farewell follows one young girl’s dream to move to America and live a life of freedom.

First of all, “Brava!” to the indyFringe Festival for continuing to, not only support local playwrights and directors, but also for attracting accomplished playwrights and actors to the Circle City. The indyFringe Theatre Festival jumps on board the trend happening in Indianapolis theatre this year: the one-actor play. Their continued efforts are truly helping to make Indianapolis a “theatre town.” Jamaica Farewell is just one more statement in their ongoing dialogue with other Indianapolis performing arts venues such as the Indiana Repertory Theatre and the Phoenix Theatre.

Jamaica Farewell, as previously mentioned, is based on real events. It runs 90 minutes with no intermission. As a young girl in Jamaica, all Debra Erhardt dreamed of a was to move to the United States, where anything was possible. The play originated in New York City in 2007. After a successful Off Broadway run, Erhardt took to touring her story throughout Canada, America and even the United Kingdom. Upon its opening in New York City in 2007, Erhardt was recognized by the city of New York for her “Outstanding Contributions to the Jamaica Community.”

The story begins in Kingston, Jamaica, sometime in the 1970s. A young Jamaican girl shares her dreams of coming to America, her envy of her best friend’s frequent sojourns to Miami and the troubling details of her life, wrapped in her fathers gambling and drinking habits. As we see her stealing her own teddy bear from a moving truck sent to repossess her family’s furniture, the words from Erhardt’s program notes ring clearly. “In Jamaica as in many countries, an individual’s class and economic background determined your destiny…”

Flash forward to the life of teenage Erhardt. Upon graduating high school, she waives a letter of acceptance to Miami University proudly in the air, her ticket to America. Though a visa seems possible with such credentials, her family’s lack of financial security keeps her from her flight to Florida. In a revolutionary torn country, filled with rules keeping citizens in, it seems all hope is lost for Erhardt. That is until she meets the handsome Jack Wallingford, a CIA agent that seems all too forth coming about his job. Erhardt once again feels she has a ticket to America in her grasp, if she can only seduce this charming American.

What follows is a madcap adventure in which Erhardt risks life and limb to pull off a scheme of mammoth proportions. With a million dollars in a duffel bag and the hopes of living a life of freedom, Erhardt uses her lovely CIA agent to smuggle money into the United States, leveraging her risky task for a visa and a sack of cash that is all her own.

The adventurous story takes on an appropriate tone of large humor told through even larger caricatures. Erhardt’s writing is descriptive, specific and above all else suspenseful. As the audience wills this Jamaican beauty to make the short journey across the Caribbean, her words truly have her listeners eating from the palm of her hand. However, I found her script lacked strong thematic elements to make a cohesive story more meaningful.

While her chase after the American Dream is honest and fun, her view of America is shallow. The point of view works for a young girl from Jamaica, but hardly challenges a room full of Americans, who have lived an easy middle to upper class life. Her program notes gave the impression of a play that delves deep into the economic distress from which she came. While the idea was introduced early and present on stage throughout, she failed to use this thread to tie it all together, instead choosing to share a light-hearted romp safely watched by all.

Erhardt’s charming personality carried her through much of the show. She is beguiling, fiery, intelligent and quick. The tinge of her Jamaican accent heightens our need to listen from the beginning. Her vocal patterns, though strange, are pleasurable to hear throughout. However, her performance was more animated storytelling than acting. Her script was populated by diverse and interesting characters. Though she executed them in a believable way, her efforts were labored and visible. From the beginning her characters seemed put on, but as the show progressed and as she warmed up, these transitions became easier for her to make. I felt as if her program could have just as easily been brought to Indianapolis by Storytelling Arts of Indiana, rather than the indyFringe Theatre Festival.

Director, Francis Megahy, lent more than a helping hand to Erhardt as she shaped her characters. He crafted interesting blocking that kept her dynamic throughout the show. However, the momentum built leading into her final goodbye to her drunken father was ruined by a simple light cue. As Erhardt tearfully lives in a beautiful moment of vulnerability, the lights go black for the first time in the play. Initially, I thought “Is that the end of the play?” But as the lights came back up on Erhardt, now sitting and wiping tears from her eyes, I felt robbed of one of the most powerful moments in the show. A stronger choice would have been to show her transition into the next scene. This reliance on technical elements throughout (both sound and light cues) detracted from the overall strength of performance.

Jamaica Farewell is the fifth one actor play in Indy this so far this year. When compared to Call Me Boricua!, Pretty Fire, The Year of Magical Thinking and After Paul McCartney, it stands as the weakest of the five, which says more about the strength of Indianapolis arts than anything else. Jamaica Farewell was an extremely enjoyable evening out. For those who can not afford big buck tickets to the Going Solo Festival now at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, take in Jamaica Farewell at the indyFringe Building this coming weekend. For less than half the price, you too can experience the growing trend of one actor plays now happening in Indianapolis.

Stay tuned for more information about other upcoming Indianapolis events at the indyFringe Building downtown. From the upcoming DivaFest to the incredible Acrocats (a cat circus), the organizers of the indyFringe Theatre Festival are proving that indyFringe is not just for Summertime.

As you head to Indianapolis downtown next weekend for Jamaica Farewell, take in dinner or drinks at these great Indianapolis restaurants and Indianapolis bars. Keep browsing for Indianapolis News, Events and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. Make the Circle City your playground this weekend!

Jamaica Farewell
Now through March 21, 2010

IndyFringe Theatre Festival
The IndyFringe Building
719 E St. Clair St
Indianapolis, IN46202