Jamaican-born Debra Ehrhardt, who came to America at the age of 16, has a beautiful smile, an especially sweet singing voice and a surfeit of energetic charm. Her one-person show, “Mango Mango,” gives her a showcase to display these strengths, but the series of anecdotes about her experiences doesn’t have enough shape, depth or detail to be more than fitfully engaging.
Ehrhardt begins by telling us of her childhood adventures in Jamaica. Daughter of an alcoholic father, Ehrhardt informs us early on that she’s a “survivor,” and she then relates tales of surviving a haunted house and molestation by her pastor on her eighth birthday. While this latter story is pretty heavy, it’s not the typical tone for the piece, which tends to stay fairly light.
More in line with the rest of the show is a sweet story about writing the Jamaican prime minister, asking for a pet monkey.
The centerpiece of the work is Ehrhardt’s depiction of how she came to America during a time of political upheaval in Jamaica, smuggling her boss’s million dollars through Customs with the unknowing assistance of a CIA agent. Once in the States, she quickly marries and has a child, and her tale of giving birth exemplifies the way she approaches life without always understanding what she’s getting into.
These are all terrific tall tales in their own right, but Ehrhardt fails to give them any real dramatic resonance. There’s a lack of that single observant detail that can make a story truly come to life. Most of all, Ehrhardt seems always focused inward, telling us how she felt instead of letting us in on her emotions by describing the scene or the people around her.
Supporting players like the CIA agent, or Ehrhardt’s mother and husband, are never given substance. Even the Jamaican landscape is left lifeless; we never really get a sense of what it was like to grow up there. Instead, Ehrhardt just tells us vaguely that Jamaica is “really who I am, you know?” It is, quite literally, all about her.
Sure, creating an autobiographical performance piece is, in and of itself, an act of arrogance, and that is eminently forgivable. But there also needs to be something behind the telling that drives the performance, something that needs to be expressed, and that’s exactly what “Mango Mango” is missing.
Director David Groh uses lighting and sound effects to give Ehrhardt something external to focus on, and these are often the moments that work best. Ehrhardt, for example, does a very funny imitation of Linda Blair with the help of Chet Leonard’s sound effects.
The sweetest parts of the show involve the mango that is used metaphorically to unify the various segments: Ehrhardt as a child watches a mango ripen and plans the proper time to pick it. Matthew Braun’s lighting gives these moments an atmosphere that expresses more than Ehrhardt’s words.