The Syringa Tree

Playwright novelizes her ACT triumph, keeping melodrama to a tasteful minimum.

In early 1960s South Africa, the violent repercussions of apartheid were just beginning. Nelson Mandela was gaining a national prominence (with jail soon to follow), and racial conflict had not yet reached its height. Now imagine this period viewed through the eyes of a white 6-year-old Johannesburg girl. Sound familiar? That's because The Syringa Tree was originally a one-woman play that premiered at A Contemporary Theatre in 1999. (It later won an Obie in New York.) Elizabeth's liberal parents tacitly oppose apartheid, whose racial registration policies create a family crisis when hers nanny, Salamina, gives birth to an illegitimate baby girl. Without the right paperwork, Moliseng would be sent back to the slums of Soweto. So Elizabeth is charged with helping keep her hidden. Soon the two are like sisters. The Syringa Tree begins as languidly as a cool African night but heats up over the next two decades, as violence and unrest escalate. Elizabeth starts out as a typical 6-year-old who yearns for friends and struggles to stop wetting the bed. Johannesburg-raised playwright Gien, now a California resident, renders South Africa—with its granadilla vines, frangipani flowers, and blooming jasmine—as a virtual paradise, which painfully contrasts with the blood spilled on its soil. She's an expressive, fluent writer whose best passages are lyrical yet intimate, bringing you right into the room. Of Salamina, she writes, "It must have been her Xhosa tongue, clicking like soft rain on a tin roof." But she can also go too far, describing a dark shade as "black as the stenching folds of a bat's underbelly." OK, if you insist. Without resorting to melodrama, The Syringa Tree satisfies as the tale of a young girl gradually wising up to the changing world around her. Elizabeth's fierce love can't prevent the 1976 Soweto uprising, of course, but her bond with Moliseng counts as its own kind of political victory.

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