Guyanese Artist Tells An Immigrant’s Story

“Demerara Gold” is a glimpse of the Caribbean immigrant experience brought to the stage in a one-woman show.

It tells the story of a 7-year-old girl named Ingrid whose life changes suddenly when her parents get visas to come to America, but must leave her and her older sister Dawn behind in Guyana in the care of their grandmothers as they wait for visas to join their parents.

One grandmother is described as a rigid recluse and the other a religious fanatic. The girls think it will only be a few short months, but it ends up taking five years before Ingrid and her sister are reunited with their parents.

When Ingrid lands in New York City as a teenager, America turns out to be all she dreamed, but more than she bargained for.

“It’s an immigrant story that can resonate with everyone in our world. It’s about what one gains and what one loses for relocating and going after something that’s better,” said actress Ingrid Griffith, who wrote and stars in the play, which first premiered at the 2014 Midtown International Theatre festival in Manhattan last summer.

It was the first time a play about Guyana was among those selected for the festival. “Demerara Gold” was so popular that all shows were sold out and an additional show had to be added.

Griffith has since performed at theaters throughout New York City in front of both Caribbean and non-Caribbean audiences.

At her most recent performance in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, also known as “Little Guyana,” audience members could be heard laughing out loud and remarking, “hilarious” and “yes now that’s real Guyanese style”.

One of the biggest compliments Griffith has gotten and won’t soon forget is being referred to as the Guyanese Whoopi Goldberg.

Beyond the laughs, this play teaches people about the rich history and culture of Guyana.

Demerara is the Arawak word for “river.” It is also a historical area in the Guianas on the north coast of South America, which is now part of Guyana.

Gold is mentioned often throughout the show because of its importance in Guyanese culture. It is a symbol of pride and status. Any Guyanese person will tell you that they believe Guyana gold is the most distinct and the finest in the world.

“Every kid has a ring on their finger. If nothing else they are wearing a piece of gold,” Griffith said. She and her sister were each given gold rings by their parents when they separated and even then, as children, they knew its importance and how precious the jewelry was.

If you didn’t know that Guyana is in South America, and that this former British colony is part of the Anglophone Caribbean, Griffith’s play will enlighten you. Creole words, popular foods like salt fish (cod fish) and bake (a type of fried bread), references to the Demerara River and the fact that Guyana means “Land of Many Waters” are among the culturally significant things that are highlighted.

Based on Griffith’s childhood, “Demerara Gold” gives insight into the expectations that many have of what life in America is like and the impact immigration has on personal identity and families.

Her family experiences changed once they were all together in America. Her mother was no longer a homemaker but got a job to help pay bills. There was not a lot of family time because everyone was busy trying to maintain a more expensive lifestyle. Griffith and her sister were also trying to assimilate into American culture where social norms were different from those in Guyana.

“America changed us. This was not the family I knew back home,” she said.

Griffith, a classically trained actress, said that she wrote “Demerara Gold” because she wanted to share her immigrant experience in a way that felt most comfortable, which is on stage and in front of an audience.

She plays all 18 characters in the story, from her grandmother and father to her best friend and of course her younger self.

She wants more people to be inspired to share their stories, especially in New York where for so many the immigrant experience is not just something heard about or seen on TV, it’s reality. Approximately 6 in 10 New Yorkers are either immigrants or the children of immigrants according to the latest statistics by the Department of City Planning.

“I think it’s really important for us as the Caribbean audience to see our story in mainstream America. I think it’s empowering. We don’t have to hide. We don’t have to feel we are overlooked. We don’t have to feel invisible. I mean we are contributors to this culture. We buy, we spend, and we work hard. Our stories should be seen and heard,” Griffith said.

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