The Syringa Tree produces the fruit of theatrical entertainment

Feb. 25, 2004, midnight | By Adedeji Ogunfolu | 19 years, 12 months ago

Worldwide-acclaimed play in DC area

Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree integrates historical South African human rights issues and the events from the perspective of a white family living through the conflict. The play is both serious and comical, but it has several important messages that people can use in their everyday existence.

The Syringa Tree, directed by J.R. Sullivan, is based on the author's life and her experience with apartheid. Using a simple set format and utilizing the artistic gifts of actress Gin Hammond, Sullivan graphically portrays Gien's play, which focuses on the racist practices of apartheid from the perspective of a young girl named Elizabeth Grace, better known as Lizzie.

Primarily using a large earth-colored flat rock and a great deal of lights tinted with a faint orange hue, scenic and lighting designer Michael Phillipi still creates the illusion of the hot South African sun in summertime. The set also contains a swing frequented by the play‘s protagonist and a fence-like background made from wood. The syringa tree is not just a regular tree. It is constructed from chunks of trees and individual pieces that are adjacently suspended side by side. The tree becomes a powerful visual symbol; the characters that hide under the tree for safety make the tree look more like a bastion for anyone seeking refuge.

Seen first through the eyes of the hyperactive and precocious six-year-old Elizabeth Grace, The Syringa Tree traces the lives of Lizzie, her family, her nanny, her nanny's child and their servants, friends and neighbors from the early years of apartheid in the 1960s to the post-apartheid nation. Lizzie talks about the normal things a six-year-old has on their mind: friends, luck, and presents, relating them to her everyday life. Lizzie has a father who is a doctor and a mother who is always on edge and very protective of Lizzie. The audience also meets Salimena, Lizzie's nanny, who is pregnant and expecting a baby. After the baby is born, the Graces illegally allow the baby to live in their home. Salimena's presence is important because she is not allowed to have a baby without proper papers, and those papers cost a great deal of money. Right from the get go, the audience experiences one of the many laws that oppressed South Africans during the times of apartheid.

Lizzie has a simple perspective about the events that later cloud her normal way of life. Although Lizzie experiences some happy times, she is constantly faced with some conflict that is a result of apartheid law. She is faced with profound loss when grandfather is murdered on his farm by a Freedom Fighter. She does not understand how a charitable man who spent all of his winter years helping the disadvantaged African people around him could be murdered by anyone for anything. After living in South Africa all of her life and not seeing any change and after following the advice of her loving old father, Lizzie gets fed up with her situation and leaves for America to experience life in the home of the free and the brave.

Hammond's one-woman act is extremely varied. She depicts each character in its own individual style. No two characters are similar and the talented actress' variation makes the play all the more interesting. There are more than 20 characters in the play that range from the ages of 3 to over 80. Hammond expands herself so that when she depicts a certain figure, she infuses herself with the character to the point where her acting can send chills into the audience.

Overall, the play is a breathtaking display of historical events blended with a brilliant fictitious account of the events from a fresher perspective. The political reality of South Africa touches every character and affects them in a certain way.

One of the reasons that Gien's play is so original is because of the unique viewpoints it presents, highlighting each character in the family and how their outlooks are different. Gien also does a good job of showing the contrast between the Grace family and other surrounding families. Other families show their contempt for the African race, and Gien's portrayal of these other families shows how uncommon a family like the Grace family is during the apartheid era. It's rare to hear of a white family living in South Africa who has the amount of humanity and compassion that Lizzie's does. Their views on the events that occur are unique and comforting, for the family exhibits profound sympathy and empathy.

The play is flawed in the way that the resolution scene is too long. At one point, the lights go out, and it appears that the play is over. And 5 seconds later, they pop back on again and more happens.

The Syringa Tree will be playing at Studio Theatre for two more weeks through Feb. 29. Ticket prices range from $36 to $44. For tickets, call 202-332-3300.

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Adedeji Ogunfolu. Adedeji Ogunfolu is now a senior. Besides working dilligently on the Silver Chips Online staff, he is an extremely enthusiastic musician. He is not ashamed to tell people that he has been to band camp, but he prefers to call it orchestra camp. He has … More »

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