In The Syringa Tree, now playing at the Jungle Theater, Sarah Agnew shows her exquisite acting chops in a one-woman show about one girl’s experience of apartheid in South Africa. With beautiful set design and direction by Joel Sass, the play is very well-executed in every aspect except perhaps the most important: the script is sentimental and lacks the detail and nuance necessary to tackle the complex political and cultural issues that the play brings up but falls short of fully engaging.
The play was originally written and performed by Pamela Gien, a South African actress and writer living in the U.S. Gien has crafted a story of a young English South African girl, Elizabeth, who witnesses discrimination against her nanny, Salamina, and her family’s other black servants.
|the syringa tree, presented through august 30 at the jungle theater, 2951 lyndale ave. s., minneapolis. for tickets ($28-$36) and information, see jungletheater.com.|
Throughout the performance, Agnew portrays 20 characters ranging in ages from infant to old age. Agnew gives each character a detailed portrayal, and handles the changes in dialect flawlessly. Sass has done a good job working with Agnew on the fluid transitions between her characters. The simple set, gorgeously painted by a team of six painters led by scenic artist Erinn Huntley, allows Agnew the freedom of movement to create physically alive and differentiated characters.
The script, however, fails. Gien has painted too simple a picture of Elizabeth’s goodness and her family’s generosity, and Salamina’s devotion to them. At one point Elizabeth describes watching Pollyanna, and in many ways Elizabeth’s journey resembles that cinematic chestnut: the good are good, the bad are bad, and it all works out in the end. Unlike Athol Fugard’s treatment of his central character in Master Harold…and the Boys—another play about apartheid written from the perspective of a white protagonist, which masterfully deals with the complex power relationship between a white adolescent and his black servants—Gien never shows Elizabeth in a bad light. There is really no recognition of Elizabeth’s family’s role in the political climate of the time. While they clearly didn’t believe in apartheid, they still enjoyed the privilege that the racist system afforded them.
Salamina, in particular, is a problematic character having no dimension. She is a character who is eternally subservient, choosing to remain a servant to a new family after apartheid is over. After being teased that she should be the one leading the country, Salamina responds that she is happier to remain as a servant. My friend who saw the show with me, May Mahala, a mixed-race actress and playwright, said that if this play were to be performed with multiple actors, “no African American woman would accept the role of Salamina.” In an e-mail exchange the day after the performance, Mahala explained: “the portrayal of that character is so subservient and reminiscent of the many ‘mammy’ roles that were created and performed as a way of romanticizing the racist history of the United States.” Indeed, though this play takes place in South Africa, as American audience members we take our own history into the theater as we experience this play.
Still, there’s something to be said for a production that keeps the audience members talking about it not just over drinks after the show, but on the following day as well. The script, though flawed, does raise some important issues of race and class that can fuel reflection in our own society.
Sheila Regan (email@example.com) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.
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