"Weíve got no answers for this place," creaks an elderly black servant in The Syringa Tree, writer/performer Pamela Gienís Obie-winning evocation/condemnation of South Africa, "the paradise lost into which I was born." Gien, who fled the land of apartheid soon after taking her university degree and spent three years in the 1980s as a member of the American Repertory Theatre company, returns to both her shamed native land and her first theatrical home with this moving if unabashedly sentimental theater piece rooted in her personal history and vividly performed in a style that melds narrative and dance. With terpsichorean gesture and foot-stomping conjuration of the rhythms of South Africa, Gien moves among two dozen characters young and old, male and female, white and black, demonstrating not only her own virtuosity but the connectedness of humanity that apartheid, banished 10 years now, defied. If all these people can live in the tight confines of Gienís slender body, the piece would seem to say, surely they can co-exist in the beloved country.
The Syringa Tree, a 2000 Off Broadway success presented here as part of the ARTís South African Festival, was born of an acting exercise that demanded the performer tell a story. Gien was ambushed by the memory of her kindly farmer grandfather, who was randomly murdered in the 1960s (probably by a Rhodesian freedom fighter) as an act of rebellion against apartheid. That violent and incomprehensible act is not, however, the focus of the theater piece. At the center of The Syringa Tree, which is narrated by the hyperactive white six-year-old dubbed by an army of black factotums "Miss Lizzie," is the story of Moliseng, the child born to Lizzieís Xhosa nanny, Salamina, and sequestered by the employerís family so that mother and baby need not be separated. As Lizzie intones with wide-eyed solemnity, "Some things are allowed and some are not." Black South Africans of 1963 were not permitted in white areas without what Lizzie calls "special papah," passes that allowed them to work there, and infants didnít get such papers but were relegated to the townships to be cared for by relatives.
Thus the mantra (one of several motifs in the play) for Moliseng and anyone else cavorting illegally in Caucasian country becomes "Hide away" ó the favored spot being high up the flowering tree of the title. Later, when toddler Moliseng goes missing, an event that necessitates a reverse-risky nighttime turn through the townships for Lizzie and her mother, it is beneath the syringa that a stony Salamina waits, unmindful of the berries that rain down on her grieving form. (The image, when Moliseng is restored, of the sturdy black woman with two children scaling her trunk is among The Syringa Treeís most visceral and joyous.) Furthermore, Lizzie is told, it is to the boughs of the syringa that the spirits of the dead are believed to ascend, their essences flowing into the wood and into any masks to be carved from it.
Gien has taken two facts ó her grandfatherís murder and her familyís harboring of Moliseng ó and built them into a haunting story of childhood assumptions fostered in a contradictory world of insular comfort and fear supported by a cadre of black maids and nannies and ancient "garden boys," then torn asunder by personal perception and national events. If the performerís Lizzie, executing jumpy dance routines and speaking in a wee English-accented voice that could as easily belong to an old lady, is a tad cute, her metamorphosis into a world of others ó including the loving, hip-rolling, deep-voiced Salamina and her funny-faced, irrepressible daughter; the solicitous black members of the household who teach Lizzie prayer and working songs; the Afrikaner minister next door, with his fire-and-brimstone prayers for rain; the humane grandmother with eyes like English violets (or Elizabeth Taylor); the high-strung patrician mother; and the decent Jewish-doctor dad who advises Lizzie, "Donít ever make this place your home" ó is remarkable. Moreover, the arc Gien creates for Moliseng, a martyr at 14, neatly encompasses the tragic toll of apartheid.
There may be those who regard The Syringa Tree, which is not as measured yet hard-hitting as Athol Fugardís best plays, as unduly nostalgic and even manipulative. Certainly the use of an innocent child as witness takes the edge off of brutal events and emphasizes the love in this particular "big house" among masters and servants, between whom young Lizzie hardly differentiates. (Indeed, Salaminaís abandoning her out of shame following the grandfatherís murder is tantamount to the loss of a parent.) But what makes Gienís artful reminiscence, with its sinewy and sensuous evocation of place, so poignant is its mix of repugnance and genuine yearning. Itís like revisiting an Eden that you always knew had serpents but that you later learn lacked God, except, of course, in the beautiful details.
Issue Date: January 7 - 13, 2005
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