Climb the Jungle's compelling Syringa Tree and see a world
Whether I was on the ground, looking up into the branches of a leafy syringa tree in 1960s Johannesburg with Elizabeth's white mother, or looking down from the tree through Elizabeth's worried eyes at her beloved but grieving Xhosa nanny, I was present every minute in the Jungle's remarkable one-woman portrayal of 22 South African characters, each pierced in some way by the thorns of Apartheid.
Rather like Frank McCourt did in "Angela's Ashes," playwright Pamela Gien tells her story though the innocent eyes of a bright six-year-old, Elizabeth Grace. Gien's great skill is to give the audience the child's keen observations and to let us fill in the harsh political reality that underpins Elizabeth's unspoken anxieties.
In an extraordinary performance, gifted Sarah Agnew plays Elizabeth and the many people who are a part of her family life in the claustrophobic, fear-riddled world of Apartheid. Seated on an oversized swing, proportioned to make Agnew appear child-sized, her gestures of scratching, impulsive body movements, gushes of words and her nervous plucking at the fabric of her dress make her a convincing six-year-old.
When she switches to become her white liberal parents, it is as clear as day whom she has become. As Lizzie's mother, Eugenia, Agnew is a graceful woman, who is at irreconcilable odds with the political reality in which she must live. As her Jewish, medical father, she's a taut, caring man, determined to serve white and black patients and always one step away from police harassment.
The Grace family harbors a terrifying secret that little Elizabeth must also keep: Salamina, Elizabeth's much-loved Xhosa nanny, has an illegal baby, Moliseng. The baby has no pass and therefore cannot remain in a white area with her black mother, but to the Graces, their servants are like family. Eugenia and her husband collude to keep Moliseng in their home, hidden from their prying bully of a neighbor, Dominee Hattingh, a self-righteous Afrikaner minister of the Dutch Reform Church, and from patrolling police.
One night, Lizzie lifts the blinds in her bedroom and watches police knock a black man to the ground, beat him and throw him in the back of their van. He's a black man on a white street, where a curfew policy of "white by night" prevails. She knows that you must have a "piece of paper" to be allowed in white areas if you are black and that terrible things happen if you do not have the piece of paper. We are "lucky fish," she reassures herself, but she's terrified when her white mother ventures into the black township of Soweto with no pass of her own. "Some things are allowed," Elizabeth struggles to understand, "and some things are not."
By the time she is a university student, Elizabeth does understand. Through her eyes, we see the 1976 Soweto riots, led by school children, and feel her desperation to escape this land she loves.
Agnew sways imaginary ample hips when she is Salamina, sings Xhosa songs with the language's distinctive clicks and finds Salamina's lilting rhythm of African-spoken English. Both Agnew and dialect coach Lucinda Holshue are to be congratulated on the cadences and accents of South Africa.
Under Director Joel Sass' sensitive direction, everything is working in this understated production. Piercing headlights sweep the backdrop and signal the threat of a passing police patrol; a dove sounds its melancholy song, and guard dogs snarl and bark. Barry Browning's lighting is earth-hued and dark-tinted in South Africa, but clear and bright in America.
Sass designed the simple set of a fabric backdrop that can suggest the textures of a leafy garden, a velvety star-spangled African night and an arid rock face, etched with Bushman petroglyphs. The large swing becomes the high branches of Elizabeth's syringa tree.
The play's one weakness is that the ending feels a bit protracted.
I lived in South Africa for five years during Apartheid, and I found Syringa Tree affecting. But in the Jungle's powerhouse production, the universality of deliberate inequity and the damage done to all classes under a brutal police state speaks with restraint and relevance to our divisive world of the present.
The Syringa Tree, January 31 - March 9, 2008. Tuesdays - Thursdays 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m., Sundays 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $26 - $36. 612- 822-7063 or www.jungletheater.com. Jungle Theater, 2951, Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis.