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ISSUE 121 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/7/2008

'The Syringa Tree' explores racism in South Africa

By Luke Schlather
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 7, 2008

"The Syringa Tree," playing at The Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis from Feb. 1 through March 9, began life as a one-woman show by Pamela Gien, a native of South Africa who grew up in the midst of apartheid. Partially autobiographical, the play shows apartheid from the snail's-eye view of a young white girl.

For The Jungle's production, Sarah Agnew takes on this demanding performance originally belonging to Gien. Not having seen Gien on Broadway, I can't speak to Agnew's accuracy, but as far as I saw, she played the part unbelievably. For an hour and a half, she stood on stage and held the audience spellbound, slipping deftly from child, to father, to woman.

The show centers around a young girl, clearly a representation of Gien's childhood self from her life in South Africa. This child's innocent rendering of such an incomprehensible world grants stark insight to those of us living in a world where such abject destructiveness toward an entire class of people feels unthinkable.

A white woman talking about racial division to an almost entirely white audience in white Minnesota sounds like it should fall flat on its face, especially when the play presents America as the shining counterexample to South Africa's backwards segregation. Indeed, I almost wished that it did not play so well, that we had some means of taking these lessons home, and not treating them as something that happens "over there" and is perpetrated by "those people." I sat in that house without any real consciousness of the fact that I noticed no black people nearby.

But what does set Agnew's performance apart from this difficulty, and leads her to rise above it, is her ability to take her little blond-girl frame, and somehow, through a marvel of voice and physicality, pull everyone into this world of South Africa. I don't think any one of us sitting there in the house that night felt it forced when Agnew moved from playing the young girl Elizabeth to playing the girl's black nanny Salamina. Part of me wants it to be forced. However, it does not lose truth because Gien keeps it about people, and not about race. When the family worries about the police coming to take away Salamina's paperless daughter, the racial element flies out the window. All we see is a family struggling to stay together.

Through this context, "The Syringa Tree" gives us all a real and present reminder that such racism exists, and that people must fight to overcome it. The show runs through March 9, so if you can get a ticket, I'd highly recommend seeing it. Agnew's performance links us to Gien's South Africa with rare immediacy and depth.

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