Review: 'Syringa Tree' offers intense acting but a shallow script

Donna Freedman
Frank P. Flavin

In "The Syringa Tree," a child's-eye view of apartheid in 1963 Johannesburg, South African actress Nava Scarracino portrays some 20 different African, Afrikaaner and white English characters. While the actress deserves props for her ability to flash seamlessly among personae, her work is ultimately undone by sluggish pacing and a too-sentimental script that relies heavily on the magical Negro archetype.

(Note: The phrase "magical Negro" refers to the long-established literary device of a black character whose purpose is to come to the aid of a white protagonist and who often possesses special insight or magical power. It exists also in theater and, especially, film. The trope has been part of academic discussions for years but came into popular vocabulary when used by director Spike Lee in 2001 to decry the archetype. It recently gained notoriety after appearing in a Los Angeles Times column by African-American author David Ehrenstein, the headline of which was spun into a controversial song satirizing President Obama.)

In Pamela Gien's 1999 play, that archetype is Salamina, an African servant who despite a dawn-till-dark job and a child of her own seems to spend most of her time catering to "Miss Lizzie," the white 6-year-old narrator. Even when heavily pregnant and tasked with "a big ironing" plus child care, Salamina must make time to play with Elizabeth, sing her songs or answer her many questions.

Elizabeth's parents appear now and then for a few minutes of quality time, but leave her mostly to the care of Salamina and the other servants. Thus the child learns about African myths and folklore; she greets visitors with "Dumela" instead of "Hello." Although the relationship between woman and child is loving, it also represents the power imbalance at the root of apartheid.

Unfortunately, the audience gains nothing from this illustration. We see the privileged child demanding (and getting) her way because she knows she's entitled to it. We see the domestic bowed down by work and oppressed by unjust laws, but ever willing to smile and give more. She seems to have no identity or purpose other than to make white people happy.

True, her employers are more enlightened than most: Dr. Grace treats both black and white patients and Mrs. Grace drives into a potentially dangerous township to find Salamina's missing child. On the whole, though, they have no problem expecting hard work and long hours, or with calling the help by their first names while expecting salutations like "Miss Lizzie" in return.

When Salamina suddenly disappears, Mrs. Grace wonders what kind of person could leave without notice after having been "(taken) in and treated as one of your own." It's unlikely that Mrs. Grace would expect one of her own to be grateful for the literal scraps from the family's dinner. As kind as she and her husband try to be, both are complicit in the system.

Put another way: Since "Gone With the Wind" is seen through the eyes of a spoiled white woman, it emphasizes the struggles and suffering of Caucasians during the Civil War. Scarlett O'Hara moans about privation, hunger and field work, never once thinking about the slave labor that had made her family rich for years.

Similarly, none of the white characters in "The Syringa Tree" seem to learn or to grow as a result of the anti-apartheid movement. Elizabeth is horrified when the police gun down protesters (including someone she knows) and emigrates to the United States as a result. But it's unclear whether she mourns the deaths of the oppressed or whether she's just upset that the reality of apartheid has chased her from her home.

When she returns years later, Elizabeth cries over a shared sorrow -- and Salamina falls right back into her old role as caregiver/comforter, even though she had suffered a much greater loss. It's similar to the conclusion of "Gone With the Wind," when a grieving Scarlett decides to go back to visit with Mammy, another magical Negro who exists solely to fix everything. Not for an instant does Scarlett ever wonder whether Mammy might need a little comforting of her own.

As noted, Scarracino does an impressive job of portraying male and female, old and young, black and white characters. At times she performs as many as five roles in rapid succession, imbuing each persona not just with different speech patterns but also with body language to connote child, mother, father, house servant, Afrikaaner neighbor.

But the show drags in spots, particularly with the prattling of its young narrator. Director Dick Reichman could have trimmed some of those monologues without damage to the story.

The New York Times referenced a production that was 95 minutes long with no intermission; last Sunday's matinee was 110 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Even so, an audience of about 30 people was enthusiastic about the production; most gave Scarracino a standing ovation.

Still, "The Syringa Tree" would have been a very different play had it been written from the point of view of Salamina's daughter. How many more times do we need to hear white people tell us what oppression feels like?

Donna Freedman, a former Daily News reporter, writes for Money Talks News and on her own website,


Daily News correspondent