KPBS AIRDATE: November 29, 2002
Splashes of light transform the painted backdrop from desert sand to cloudy sky. The only prop is a suspended swing. This is story-telling the way it began: one person, many voices and characters. Pamela Gien is a modern-day griot, a folk historian. She has the stage all to herself, but she crowds it with a cast of 24 colorful characters, as she looks back at her beloved South Africa — a place she vividly paints in lyrical language. We can almost smell the frangipani and see the berries that fall from the cherished, spiritual syringa tree in her family’s yard. She recounts the poignant, disturbing history of a family and a country mired in the mid-20th century. In the span of 90 minutes, she shows us a four-generation life-cycle, from birth to death, and everything in-between, including murder, assault, brutality and innocence, grief, shame, loyalty, bigotry, group-think and fierce individuality — all seen through the eyes of a child.
Begun as an exercise in a Los Angeles acting class, “The Syringa Tree” is an evocative, poetic tour de force, written and performed by Gien, alternating with two other actresses at the Pasadena Playhouse. When director Larry Moss first heard a snippet of the story in his class, he was overcome by the intensity of its joy and anguish. He convinced Gien to expand it, and the piece went on to New York and London, winning multiple awards for Gien’s writing and her performance. Set in 1963, the play chronicles the emotional, spiritual and intellectual growth of wide-eyed, inquisitive and astute young Elizabeth, age six when we first meet her. At the outset, that high-pitched child’s voice is grating, but we soon grow to admire the innocent wisdom of the little girl and suffer with her family and their black servants. This was the dark time of the state-sponsored racism, apartheid, a 40-year era of fear, government control and ‘special papers,’ police raids and neighbor informants, forbidden songs and the drum-beat of history and frightened hearts. Through Elizabeth’s eyes, we witness an astonishing series of events, big and small, ostensibly about one family but really about the family of man, with all its good and evil inclinations. Gien seems less portraying than channeling her characters, making superbly swift transitions, with just a shift of posture or vocal tone, capturing the linguistic diversity of her multi-colored homeland, with its British-influenced English, Germanic Afrikaans, and tribal click languages. She moves like a sprite, with amazing agility and arms like graceful birds. We may sense the arid dust of the climate, but the performance feels decidedly liquid. Gien’s fluidity lends elegance to the saga, and to her endearing alter-ego, a long-time keeper of secrets and stories.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.