Oh God, How I Miss It!

Laments New Play on Race Relations in South Africa: In Her Luminous, Multi-Character Role, Pamela Gien Portrays a World of Divided Identities in the Beloved Country of …

`The Syringa Tree,” now playing at Playhouse 91 in New York, may be the
first theatrical work to deal with the complicated and ambiguous relations
between Jews and blacks in South Africa. A solo performance written and
acted by Pamela Gien, it is a partly fictionalized, though mostly factual,
account of a half-Jewish, half-English child in Johannesburg during
apartheid. Using little in the way of stage effects outside of a swing and
a cyclorama (a two-layered semi-circular backdrop), Ms. Gien creates an
uncommonly moving, even wrenching, study of race relations as seen through
the eyes of a little girl. I was reminded of James Agee’s tone-poem
“Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (included in his novel “A Death in the Family”
and later set to music by Samuel Barber), where the daily events of adults
are experienced through the imagination, and expressed through the luminous
images, of a child.

Yet “The Syringa Tree” is about a lot more than the nostalgia of a lazy day
in Tennessee. It is concerned with the suffering of black people under
apartheid and the various ways whites dealt with their responsibility for
it. In a speech given recently to the Harvard Jewish faculty by my wife,
Doreen Beinart, herself a Jewish South African, she observed that while
organized Jewry (including the Jewish Board of Deputies and most Orthodox
rabbis) did not protest apartheid for fear of being subjected to Afrikaner
bigotry, individual Jews — such as Joe Slovo, chief of staff of the
military wing of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress — were often
among the most active white people fighting racism.

That divided attitude permeates Ms. Gien’s play. From the moment the black
maid Sellamina refers to her little charge as “my pickaninny missus,” we
are in a nest of nurturing warmth and color-blind affection built on a
foundation of hierarchy and subjugation — somewhat like that of the
antebellum American South.

In order to depict such a world, Ms. Gien has single-handedly created a
theatrical album of 28 characters. Ms. Gien was once an actress in my
company, but nothing in her previous work prepared me for what she is
delivering here — a series of character transformations so instantaneous
and intense that the stage seems peopled with multitudes. Still, it is not
just the technical achievement that startles one into attention. It is the
way she manages to delineate, physically and vocally, a whole world of
whites, blacks, coloreds, Jews and Afrikaners — a world of divided
identities where the very fact that a black baby (Sellamina’s Moliseng) has
been born without “papers” can destroy her and uproot everyone around her.

If the production has a weakness, it is that the voice Ms. Gien has chosen
for little Elizabeth (Lilly) tends to grow rather irritating. But she has
perfect pitch in the way she depicts all the other characters: the harassed
father dispensing precious medicines; the slightly hysterical, vaguely
depressed mother; the rigid Afrikaner farmers praying for rain, and
particularly the stoical Faulknerian maid and her own hapless little
“pickaninny” whom Lilly’s parents help to birth (their little girl recoils
at the “yucky stuff” that covers the little baby).

Lilly’s Jewish father is a doctor who delivers children for a living. Her
English mother manages the black staff with sympathy, yet both mother and
father are regarded as outlanders, by blacks and whites alike. “When is the
madam going back to her own country over the seas?” asks one of her
servants, while the Afrikaner women stomp out in protest when they see
black children in the same room with white ones. When Sellamina takes
Moliseng to her family in Soweto, the little girl gets sick and is lost in
a hospital where people are dying of dehydration. In her terror and grief,
Sellamina rocks and rocks under the syringa tree, mindless of the berries
falling on her body. Lilly’s parents help to find the little girl and
return her safely to her mother. It is that sort of thing that leads the
hard-nosed Afrikaner farmers, praying for rain, to believe that the Jews
and English are making trouble with the blacks who will come and kill them
in their beds.

Sadly, the Afrikaner prophecy comes true. Called away by a “terrible
accident,” Lilly’s father discovers that his wife’s parents, Lilly’s
beloved grandparents, have been murdered on their Natal farm in the course
of a petty theft by a “perpetrator.” Sellamina is so ashamed of the
violence that she can no longer look the family in the eye, and soon she
leaves. Not long thereafter, the terrible events of Soweto erupt. Moliseng,
now all of 14, leads the riot with a brick in her hand, shouting, “You will
see me forever in your dreams.” A blinding light and she is shot.

The grown-up Elizabeth departs for America, vowing never to come back
because “we don’t change things.” Nonetheless, she returns to Johannesburg
after the fall of apartheid, is reunited with Sellamina and finds her past
again. This reunion constitutes a poem of inconsolable loss and nostalgia
(“Oh God, how I miss it!”) that leaves the American audience grieving as
much as the central character for the beloved country. At the end of the
play, she is back where she began, on a swing, ecstatic with a vision of
lost paradise. The performance is impeccable. Ms. Gien has a meticulous eye
for detail and the capacity to render each moment with truth and
illumination. Don’t miss this transcendent dramatic experience.

Mr. Brustein, theater critic for The New Republic, is the artistic director
of the American Repertory Theatre.

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