In the Shadow of 'The Syringa Tree': An Intimate Look at Apartheid South Africa

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South African writer and actress Pamela Gien's new one-woman play, "The Syringa Tree," is the tragic story of two South African families — one black, one white — and the complex love they share, even as race stands between them. While this isn't unexplored territory, what makes this production a standout is Gien's impressive performance in creating 28 fully realized characters on a sparsely decorated stage. Through her expressive movements and creative vocalizations — most startlingly in rapid-fire exchanges between six-year old Elizabeth and her redoubtable, deep-voiced South African caretaker — Gien single-handedly fills the stage with the people, music and verdant countryside of South Africa.

Gien's dazzling performance only enhances the simple emotional power of the tale. What we see through the eyes of six-year-old Elizabeth, her black caretaker and the others who populate this story is that apartheid was not only fought in the frontline political struggle broadcast around the world, but also in the closely knit circles of families, in the intimacies of individual relationships and in the quiet but fierce struggles of personal conscience. sat down with Pamela Gien to talk about her work: How much of the play is autobiographical?

PG: The play is semi-autobiographical. I based it on some true incidents in my early life in South Africa, one being the murder of my grandfather on his farm. It was the very early days of the struggle for freedom, the late '60s, and we had never heard of anything like that happening before. My grandfather was a gentle man who cared deeply for the black families who lived unofficially on his farm. His attacker was never found; he was assumed to be a freedom fighter from Rhodesia who randomly attacked my grandparents. It was such a painful event, I was surprised to find it in my thoughts a few years ago. Remembering it was really the beginning of the play. While I based the play on two true incidents, I chose to write it as a fictional story. I didn't want it to be a docudrama of my life, and writing as a fiction gave me a way to speak to something that belongs to all of us, something more profound, incorporating the idea of freedom and human dignity. So it's a fictional story, but one deeply invested with much of my life, memories and feelings that I carry with me to this day. Much of the play is seen through the eyes of a six-year-old child, Elizabeth. Why did you choose to use her voice?

PG: When I first began to put the early pieces of the play together, the child's voice came to me like a magical gift. She was just there, tentative, joyful, almost inaudible. I don't recall how I was as a child, but I certainly remember how I felt, and I've written Elizabeth from that young, innocent place. She takes us on the journey through the play, never commenting politically, only witnessing. She tells us what she sees, and the audience feels what she must be feeling. I think she's a gift because she brings us back to that early place, that magical and joyful heart of an innocent, trying to make sense of the injustice around her, and also reveling in her own joyful spirit. And that's what the audiences say they find so entertaining and transporting. Does it exhaust you to cover 28 characters? How do you prepare for it?

PG: Yes, it's physically and emotionally arduous, but so rewarding. I have tremendous gratitude for the challenge of it. I was so lucky to work intensively with my director Larry Moss on building the characters, creating their sounds, their movements, their psychological gestures, etc., and when I get tired I go to their tasks, what each character is trying to accomplish in any moment, what their obstacles are, how they're trying to get what they need. Larry is the champion of specificity and would not rest until we had mined everything there was to be found. And we're still finding things! I think that's the exciting part of the piece. It's an enormous challenge, physically and emotionally. I don't do much other than the show, but I'm excited to meet the challenge of seven shows a week for these magnificent audiences in New York. Their laughter and deep feeling give me energy! Did you deliberately make things morally ambiguous?

PG: I didn't want the play to be a political lecture of any kind, because I think the most powerful thing is for the audience to make its own judgments, for people to be entertained in a way that also may cause them to think and/or feel deeply. The play has a strong human message, a spiritual message, but it doesn't moralize. It speaks to our connections to one another, our shared loves and dreams, the earth we rise up out of, and remain connected to our whole lives, and those we carry with us, wherever we go. I think that's a powerful idea, one that gives me great hope for the future, for peace and equality in the world. Apartheid had no winners. We all lost. It was a sad and disgraceful time, and I hope the play shows the complexities. "The Syringa Tree" takes a very strong stand against oppression, but not by lecturing or sermonizing. I tried to write what I feel, that, black or white, good and evil live in our hearts, not in the color of our skin. What are your thoughts on the hopes for true reconciliation in South Africa? In what ways do you hope "The Syringa Tree" can help foster this?

PG: I have great hope for true reconciliation in South Africa, as I do for peace in the world. There are so many brave and extraordinary South Africans who worked tirelessly for change, some at great personal risk to themselves, and they are the real heroes. They continue now, everyday, to rebuild and regrow what I know will be a miraculous place, the new South Africa. I think South Africans there, and all over the world, have a unique perspective and a unique opportunity to build love and joy where there was sorrow and despair. It will take time, but I have great faith in the outcome. If "The Syringa Tree" can be a tiny part of a new message of hope and joy, I'm honored and deeply grateful.