White Conscience

Apartheid in the 1960s is the focus of Beowulf Alley's impressive one-woman play

On a farm outside Johannesburg, South Africa, there lives a little girl named Elizabeth Grace. She spends so much time in the big, fragrant syringa tree on the property that her nanny, a patient Xhosa woman named Salamina, calls the girl Lizzie Monkey. The Syringa tree is a place of small wonders, as well as a hideout and a refuge--not only for Lizzie, but for her Xhosa and Zulu neighbors trying to avoid brutal encounters with the white authorities.

The Syringa Tree is also a play by the South African-born playwright and actress Pamela Gien. It involves 24 characters--white and black, young and old, male and female--all played by a single performer. That's Patagonia resident Belinda Torrey, in a fine production now on stage at Beowulf Alley Theatre.

Torrey seems to have spent most of her adult life as a science teacher, and she calls herself a "hobby actress." But there's absolutely nothing amateurish about her performance in The Syringa Tree. Indeed, she pulls off the one-woman show with aplomb, holding the stage through two full hours of text, bringing her primary character from childhood to maturity, and sometimes convincingly playing three or four different characters in a single conversation.

Lizzie is a white girl, the daughter of a doctor, growing up in 1960s South Africa, a fine time to be white and privileged, but a hellish time to be black. Under apartheid, the indigenous people were subject to severe restrictions on when and where they could live, work and travel. If you were black and happened to be out without the proper documentation, or even merely out past the curfew for blacks at night, and you saw the police coming down the road, the best thing to do would be to clamber into the nearest tree and hope to avoid another harassment, arrest or beating.

Lizzie's family, of mostly English descent, has no sympathy for the apartheid system, which was instituted and fostered mainly by the Afrikaner, or Dutch-descended, population. Of course, apartheid wouldn't have been possible without the complicity of the English South Africans, and not every Afrikaner was a maniacal racist, but the situation is almost always simplified for dramatic purposes.

Lizzie has no idea what's going on. She knows her parents don't like the Afrikaner minister who lives next door, and she knows that the minister's daughter is bossy and unpleasant but still an interesting friend to have across the fence. She knows that the Xhosa and Zulu men and women working for the white families in her neighborhood are interesting, too, but she can't quite grasp why they're so jumpy at night, and why their evenings of tale-telling around a campfire fall apart whenever a police cruiser comes down the road. Lizzie's is an enchanted world of fairy dust in sunbeams, and blue glitter drifting from a beloved clown, and white family and black friends she loves.

Lizzie begins to get an education in social realities when Salamina, her beloved nanny, gives birth to a child who is not properly documented. Lizzie's family conceals the birth, and the little girl herself, for several years, although Lizzie doesn't grasp who, exactly, is risking what. Later, a white relative is murdered for no real reason by a Rhodesian freedom fighter, and this finally signals the end of Lizzie's childhood idyll. How she comes to terms with all of this when older is the subject of the play's later scenes.

Torrey spends most of her time in character as the young Lizzie, presenting her as spoiled but innocent, not too awfully cutesy, and not so self-centered that you lose sympathy for her. Most impressively, toward the end of the play, Torrey gives us a grown-up Lizzie who is quite obviously the same character, if still a bit childlike; it's difficult to maintain this kind of continuity when you're jumping forward 20 years, from child to adult, but all the more necessary here, so the adult Lizzie doesn't get lost among all the other characters.

Salamina is equally well drawn: slower but constantly moving, her voice coming from deep within her belly. No doubt dialect coach Eva Wright offered some significant help to Torrey in sorting out the characters, and director Roger Johnson has kept Torrey focused; he also kept the action fluid. The story plays out on a very simple set, a rough swing suspended above the stage, with a curtain of streamers behind. A change in scene is usually signaled by a dip in the lights, or by Torrey passing briefly behind the streamers--just enough to define the structure of the play (which initially seems very stream-of-consciousness) without becoming clunky.

If there's something to complain about here, it's that we're seeing yet another story of apartheid told from a white person's point of view. How many apartheid dramas can you name that truly center on blacks, rather than white crusaders? Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena, the film Catch a Fire and a couple of others, but beyond that, apartheid becomes a vehicle for stories about white conscience.

Yes, The Syringa Tree is about white conscience, but it's also about the bonds between people. And any play in which people of color are persecuted because they lack the proper documentation will have particular resonance during our own sometimes unsavory immigration debates.

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