When Black and White Unite

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Review of 'The Syringa Tree' by Pamela Gien, National Theatre, London

This play brought back many heart-wrenching impressions and feelings I had as a child growing up in apartheid South Africa. In the play Salamina, the loving black nanny of Lizzie, a six year old white child, is pregnant, and when Lizzie wants to announce the coming joy, Salamina reacts in terror: 'No, no, don't tell anybody', because if you're a black servant you can't keep your child--the police will take it away. The police come stalking relentlessly late at night, and the frightened black servants climb up the branches of the syringa tree to hide. Salamina's baby has 'no papers', and when illness takes her to the Soweto hospital she gets 'lost' in a bureaucratic web, and is only 'found' through the endangering intervention of Lizzie's mother.

The remarkable thing about this play is that it is a one woman show. Pamela Gien, who also wrote the play, takes on all the numerous parts of children, black and white, English and African parents, grandparents, bigoted Afrikaner neighbours, servants and police in a most convincing manner, with accents, intonations and attitudes absolutely true to life. The people enacted also cover a wide range of ages, all of whom this young actress realistically portrays in a moving performance. It covers 20 years in the intertwined lives of the two black and white families. The play is heartwarming in showing the solidarity between the two families in adversity. This transcends the official policy of vicious discrimination and enforced segregation of the apartheid years.

The play starts in apartheid's middle years, the 1960s. Those years are deeply invested with biographical aspects of Pamela Gien's life in South Africa, where she was born and brought up, but which she left to get married in 'the land of the brave and free'. However, she returns to South Africa for a reunion.

As a one person show 'The Syringa Tree' is quite remarkable. It has received numerous awards, which does not surprise me.