The Syringa Tree
Director: Jeff Brooker
Written By: Pamela Gien
Featured Artists: Nancy Rademeyer
Company: The Syringa Tree
Elizabeth Grace is a privileged young girl growing up in a white suburb of Johannesburg. After her nanny, Salamina gives birth to a daughter, Elizabeth and her family are responsible for keeping the newborn baby hidden. Spanning several decades, The Syringa Tree tells the dramatic, heartbreaking and inspiring tale of a young woman’s journey to adulthood. In this show, 6-year-old Elizabeth Grace and 23 other characters are all played by one actor.
The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien was first performed in 1999 and is set in 1963 – and yet the story, despite years of separation, remained relevant. Now, on its twentieth anniversary, it remains just as relevant.
The piece draws its audience into the story of six-year-old Elizabeth Grace, a young white girl growing up in apartheid South Africa. It follows, among much more, the relationship between Elizabeth and her family’s maid – Salimina. As the story progresses, Lizzy begins to learn the harsh realities of the country in which she lives – a shocking repulsion from the innocence of childhood to the cruelty of growing up.
With twenty four characters in total, the show is not just challenging for the actress in terms of subject matter, but in terms of dexterity. The vast scope of characters adds to the complexity of an already complex story that tackles our relationship with race and, in retrospect, our own history.
The play allows much of the audience to access their own memories, finding catharsis through what they are seeing. Through the accessing of memory, we are able to understand a lot more of how and why we experience our memories the way that we do. Especially in our current climate, one in which a fresh generation of theatre makers is tackling our history from fresh perspectives, a new look at this piece is not just interesting, but necessary. As is watching it.
Often we get trapped in only experiencing the present or only remembering the factual past. As opposed to applying the past to our present or examining our past in a more emotionally charged, and less objective, light. Pain and loss are universal human emotions. We all experience them. But how to we live through that and come out on the other side, if not unscathed, then at least understanding our scars? And how do we find little pieces of happiness in our hurt?