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The Syringa Tree

a Drama
by Pamela Gien

COMPANY : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
ID# 1241

SHOWING : April 15, 2005 - May 15, 2005



Carolyn Cook portrays 21 roles in this look at South African history as seen through the eyes of a child.

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Through the Eyes of a Child
by Dedalus
Monday, May 9, 2005
There’s an interesting paradox in trying to show historical atrocities on stage. Either we numb ourselves to what we’re seeing – what does this horror have to do with my life, anyway? -- we go into denial – Surely this is an exaggeration – or we weep in sympathy then go home in self-congratulatory smugness – I’m so much better than these awful people. Every now and then, though, a play comes along and tackles a difficult subject with a sensitivity that short-circuits all our emotional defenses and leaves us haunted for weeks afterward. Last season, Seven Stages gave us “Maria Kazito,” which looked at the Rwandan Genocide with an accumulating array of abstract images, poems, memories, and images that left us emotionally wrecked, conscious of the humanity of both victim and victimizer, aware of our own capacity for horrifying action.

Now, Horizon Theatre and Carolyn Cook give us Pamela Gien’s “The Syringa Tree,” a theatrical tour-de-force that shows us the history of South African Apartheid through the eyes of a child. Lizzie Grace is a child of privilege. She lives in a compound with her parents, a Jewish Doctor who treats both blacks and whites, and his Catholic wife. Lizzie’s world is centered on her Nanny, Salamina Mashlope, a Xhosa native with an undocumented daughter, Moliseng (“Molly-Sing”). All Lizzie knows about politics is that “Molly-Sing” must be kept hidden and her Mommy and Daddy can’t go to certain parts of town, all because they have the wrong “papers.” She lives in a child’s paradise, a world where magical natives gather in secret around the backyard Syringa Tree, where Salamina is a great font of love and affection and caring, where tragedy is never talked about or seen.

It therefore is inevitable that she will grow up, lose those she loves the most, and become disenchanted with her country that treats her extended family as if they were criminals.

Most of the play occurs during the time Lizzie grows from childhood to early adolescence. We see this world through her eyes. It is a prodigious performance by Carolyn Cook. She plays over 20 characters, young & old, black, white & mixed, male & female, and makes them all unique. She creates a character with a gesture, a tilt of the head, a change of pitch in her voice. And they are all filtered through Lizzie’s eyes. I didn’t get the feeling that I was watching Ms. Cook dazzle us with her abilities, but that Lizzie was telling us her story and playing all the parts in her own life.

It is a credit to the script and to Ms. Cook’s performance, that the most emotionally wrenching scene is one in which a tragedy does not occur. Toddler “Molly-Sing” has gone missing. Lizzie’s parents risk life and reputation trying to find her. And they do find her. Salamina’s face at the reunion, becomes a painful rictus of tears that are guarded, pulled from a woman who was fully numbed to the potential of tragedy, but surprised at the sudden reversal of fortune. She was prepared for sadness, not happiness. This, more than any other scene, drives home the effect this system had on these people. What does it say about a society that adapts to pain, but cannot cope with joy?

And, to drive home the irony, a few scenes later, we learn Moliseng’s ultimate fate during the Soweto uprising. And we know why happiness can be so hard.

Maybe that’s the solution to the “atrocity” paradox – just show how painful it is to be happy.

-- Brad Rudy (
Sounds like a great show by Shadrach
I wish I could afford to go see it. It reminds me of an excellent movie about apartheid in S. Africa - The Power of One. Have you seen it?
"Power of One" by Dedalus
I haven't seen that one, but this did remind a bit of "A World Apart," which also centered on a young girl.

BTW, if $$$ is an issue, there's always ushering -- I don't think I've actually paid to see a show in quite some time (and I know the Horizon is always looking for help ...)



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