My interview with Laurie McCants has me thinking about one-woman shows today, more specifically, a one-woman show that made up one of the best theatrical experiences of my life. South African playwright Pamela Gien scripted The Syringa Tree from the viewpoint of a young white girl growing up in South Africa during apartheid. The story itself is moving; the protagonist, Lily Grace, communicates the fear and confusion of that time through a child’s clear and insightful voice, while also showing the love and strength of her family, including her nanny Salimina, whose life is put in jeopardy when she gives birth to a baby girl in Johannesburg.
The politics of the play are intriguing and pretty well easy to follow, since much of the information comes from a six-year-old narrator. The narrative is beautiful and the depictions of each character — Lily, Salimina, Lily’s mother and father and over a dozen more — are stunning and true. But do you know what makes this show SO amazing? Sure you do…remember, it’s a ONE-WOMAN SHOW.
Now, I didn’t have the opportunity to see Pamela Gien perform the role she created AND originated, but I did have the opportunity to see Maura Malloy perform The Syringa Tree at Scranton’s Electric Theatre Company a few years back (RIP, Electric Theatre Company, which very sadly closed just this year). I will admit, going into the show I was skeptical. I have, unfortunately, not been to many one-woman shows (ok, at the point, I had been to exactly ZERO) nor many one-person shows to begin with (ok, ok…again, it was ZERO). So I wasn’t sure what to expect. And I’m a theatre person!
Well, my concerns were entirely unfounded. If I had wondered before how anyone could convincingly portray almost two-dozen characters in one show, I wonder no more. (Well, I might still wonder HOW she did it, but at least now I know it is possible!) Malloy was STUNNING in every role she played, giving each character their own voice, accent, attitude, gestures, stance…in short, character. Each one was carefully articulated so that there was never a question as to who was speaking, even when Malloy deftly held conversations with herself as two or three different people.
I heard much later that this play was being produced at a University where each role would be individually cast by a different actor. I understand this from an educational standpoint and I appreciate that Gien is flexible enough to allow a director that freedom. But I also believe that this approach to the show loses something. By witnessing a single woman take on so many characters and personalities, you feel like the protagonist, Lily, is not only narrating the story, but performing it for you as well. You forget that an actress is telling you this story; it becomes the character who becomes the other characters with such beauty and grace and intricacy that it takes your breath away.
The Syringa Tree played Off-Broadway in New York (performed by Kate Blumberg) and London (performed by Pamela Gien), and received a North American tour (performed alternately by Gin Hammond and Eva Kaminsky). I don’t know when or where it will pop up next, but I hope it’s soon. And if you can’t see it sometime soon, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the script. Just promise me one thing: Don’t read it with twenty-some actors in your head. Imagine a woman and a swing, a moon and a tree. Imagine this beautiful storyteller rending her personal, emotional account of a horrifying time in South African history. Watch her evolve in your mind’s eye from a little white girl to an ancient black woman to any number of men and women who struggled through apartheid. Let yourself be carried away…and remember that one woman — one dramachick — wrote and performed it all.