By Kyle Francis
A Syringia is a flowered tree indigenous to South Africa, hearty enough to bear the country’s immoderate climate. Like how rose flowers symbolize romantic love, Syringia’s symbolize memory and love of one’s family. In The Syringia Tree, an award-winning play by Pamela Gein, the tree represents solidarity, family and refuge from oppression.
Based on Pamela Gein’s own experiences as a child, the story takes place during South African apartheid, following a 16 year-old girl named Elizabeth and her family as they try to deal with the realities of racism, guilt and responsibility.
“The family that the story revolves around have a Syringia tree in their back yard, but it’s a metaphor for other things as well,” says Meg Roe, the award-winning Albertan thespian chosen to act all of the play’s characters for the Alberta Theatre Projects’ production. “It acts as a safe place for [Elizabeth], and just means different things to different people.”
While the play deals with emotionally heavy subject matter many horrific historical events, Roe promises it never falls back on preaching or ivory tower judgments. One of the events explored in The Syringa Tree is the practice in South Africa of having movement within a city limited by race. Roe assures such delicate subject matter is handled without editorializing. Rather, the performance portrays events as they occurred and lets audiences draw their own conclusions.
“This is very strongly a memory play,” recalls Roe. “It’s based on [Gein’s] memories, but it doesn’t necessarily alter them to make them more appealing. It takes place during apartheid, but it doesn’t make any judgments about it. It just lays it all out there.”
The performance was originally written for 21 characters from every age, race aand sex category but it has never been performed with a full cast. Instead, a single woman takes on all roles, creating an effect as if she’s talking to herself. Gein herself was the first to perform this daunting task, though the talented Roe couldn’t be a better substitute.
“When you’re acting, you can only go emotionally as far as the other person you’re acting with,” she explains. “Playing all the parts has certainly been a stretch for me emotionally and physically. It’s basically me on stage with a swing telling a story. It’s very tiring and very challenging.”
Elizabeth’s story promises to be heartbreaking, uplifting and comedic all at once. It presents its story as objectively as it can, passing no judgements on those who watch it or its characters. With this open-ended style, The Syringia Tree challenges audiences to think about what the tree might mean to them.