Voice of a nation
The Syringa Tree
South Africa is both an old country and a brand-new country, a nation still finding its way after the end of apartheid in 1991. In a country that’s gone through amazing transformation in the last 15 years, everyone has a story. When I visited South Africa two years ago, everyone wanted to tell me a personal story, and every story was the ultimate truth. The narrators were black and white, and young and old, and they were telling stories about the past, the present and the future.
Playwright Pamela Gien, who grew up in South Africa under apartheid, has managed to blend many of these similar stories in her remarkable play The Syringa Tree. It’s a one-woman play that incorporates 24 characters: white and black, men and women, and adults and children. It uses at least 10 different African dialects and accents, and it transcends four decades.
Finding an actress who can present such a wide range of characters is a challenge. Luckily, the Sacramento Theatre Company (STC) was already familiar with such a versatile actress: Saffron Henke, who’s appeared in the past STC productions Arranged Marriage and Tartuffe.
The story is centered on young Elizabeth Grace, a white 6-year-old whose physician father travels into the worlds of both the blacks and the whites, separated under apartheid rule. Elizabeth’s world is a bit smaller on the family land, with her mother, her black servant Salamina (a second mother figure), other servants and various neighbors.
Henke presents all the characters from Elizabeth to Salamina, plus family members, neighbors, the police and others. Not only does Henke portray the potpourri of characters, but she also fully embodies each and every one. It can be tricky to make each character an individual without the performance looking like the ultimate acting exercise, but Henke seamlessly blends characters and moments to create memorable stories. It’s a remarkable performance.
Following the playwright’s explicit instructions, the play is performed on a bare stage, with no props or sets except one garden swing. STC has added African dancers and a drummer who perform subtly in the background, bringing the sights and sounds of Africa to life. Kudos to the talented dancers Araba Brown, Alena Ross, Roshni Shukla and Kenna Wright; and, from South Africa, dancer Sifiso Majola and dancer-drummer Happy Ngcobo. It’s a memorable production that breathes life into the many stories and people of South Africa.