By James E. Trainor III
Iowa City - For much of its history, South Africa has struggled with extreme racial tension, including a notorious period from 1948 to 1993 known as apartheid. In 1948, the new government passed legislation to split the population into different racial groups, each with different rights and lands. Life under apartheid, for many, was either a terrified submission or a long, dangerous struggle for freedom.
This period is the subject matter of Pamela Gien's highly emotional one-woman play The Syringa Tree. Riverside's production of The Syringa Tree, starring Saffron Henke and directed by Sean Christopher Lewis, opened last night.
We are introduced to South Africa in 1963, through the eyes of a six-year old girl, Elizabeth Grace. Lizzie is beginning to understand the rules of her world but not the reasons or implications. She tells us how her family's servant, Salamina, gave birth. They had to hide and protect the child, Moliseng: "If you don't have special papers, they'll come and take you away."
Lizzie is very earnest and curious, eager to invite us into her world. For all the tragedy and pain we know is coming, there's a lot of hope and humor in this play. Lizzie grows up, loving her life, her family, her servants, and even her neighbors, who are petty and racist.
All these characters are played by Saffron Henke, a veteran performer who brings all her experience to bear in this very challenging piece. She does an intense amount of physical work to create distinct characters, keeping careful track of their position on the stage and making fully-blocked scenes. She plays a child very convincingly, with jerky, restless movements and unreserved displays of emotion from glee to terror, all in a cheerful, charming cadence. She plays Salamina, the old black servant with equal skill, stooping from years of hard labor, but with a warm, patient and joyful demeanor. Lizzie's parents, Isaac and Eugenie, are warm and kind but stiff, aware of the madness they live in, not without a sense of humor but always on the lookout for danger. Henke performs all these varied characters, many with different ethnic accents to boot, with specificity and expert timing. With the help of Lewis's direction, Henke creates an incredibly rich, nuanced world. Lewis and Henke are both seasoned storytellers, and The Syringa Tree is truly a tour de force.
Henke embodies all the people of this world in a simple, unassuming brown smock. The set is spacious and free; it consists of a painted road, a hanging swing, and a latticework of wood separating the main playing area from the back drop. This approach is quite effective and very versatile. Under the lights it can be a hospital or a backyard; we can pray for rain or weep for loss, go to Africa, America, or anywhere in between. The sound creates a frightening environment of sirens and shouts when need be, or underscores a compelling monologue from a particular viewpoint. The scenic design is by Shawn Johnson, the costume design by Emily White, and the sound design by Sean Christopher Lewis.
This production is an excellent realization of a very moving script. The Syringa Tree serves as an example of how easily society can turn against itself, and a very cogent reminder, as battles for freedom rage today in Libya and elsewhere, of how there are those who have died for the most basic of rights.
It also shows us how the human spirit survives such turmoil. Gien constantly reminds us that we are all connected. She does this through her characters' simple love and respect for one another, through their continued hope and faith throughout periods of separation. She does this through the simple device of having one woman play all the characters; this whole world comes out of one woman on stage, just as we all come from, and will ultimately go back to, the earth. She does this through the metaphor of the syringa tree, where Lizzie tells of the spirits of our ancestors live.
At one point, after South Africa has thrown off the shackles of apartheid, Lizzie wonders if Moliseng is in the tree. Moliseng, a teenager by the time of the Soweto uprising, marches up to the edge of the stage (and therefore the police line) and demands to be heard. It is an extremely gripping, intensely emotional scene. What ultimately overcomes the rage at the brutality of her murder is the admiration of the girl's courageous spirit. Between Moliseng's fiery passion, Isaac's detached but compassionate liberalism, and Lizzie's grounded love for humankind, The Syringa Tree leaves us with two important gifts: the hope that one day ignorance and oppression will disappear, and the courage to fight it while it remains.
The Syringa Tree runs from April 1st to April 17th at Riverside Theatre, 213 N Gilbert St, at 7:30pm (2pm on Sundays). There will be a talkback after the April 3rd performance. Tickets are $12-$26 and can be purchased at 319.338.7672 or through Riverside's website.