This video is the film of the staged one-woman play written and acted by white South African Pamela Gien. The play begins in 1963, in a white suburb of Johannesburg, in the fenced yard of the Grace family and their black servants. Gien starts as six-year-old Lizzie Grace. Gien then fluidly shifts roles to enact twenty-eight different characters from newborn to age eighty-two, black and white, male and female--who talk, gesture, sing and dance in this tour-de-force performance.

The set contains only a large, plain swing; even the berry-bearing syringa tree to which the swing is attached is left to the imagination. Gien’s costume is similarly muted--she is barefoot and wears a beige jumper over a simple tee shirt. A sound system provides music of ethnically diverse origins at appropriate moments.

The play opens with Gien swinging and talking in a girlish voice and using exaggerated childlike gestures. Lizzie exclaims that she is "a very lucky fish": she proceeds to explain to the audience the meaning of her favorable white nailbed spots. Lizzie is, by self-definition, a "hyperactive," outspoken child with great imagination and energy. She is cared for by Salamina, a loving nanny and servant.

Lizzie’s father is Dr. Isaac Grace, who delivers Salamina’s baby in the home. The child, Moliseng, "has no papers" and is harbored illegally by the Grace family--a constant source of worry for all, including Lizzie. Isaac is a Jewish atheist, and Lizzie’s mother, Eugenie, is Catholic and of English descent. Their neighbors, however, are bigoted Afrikaners and create great tension for the Grace household. "Don’t ever make this place your home," advises Dr. Gien to his daughter after dealing with racist clients who do not want to be in the same examining room after a black patient.

Lizzie’s liberal, generous grandfather is brutally murdered by a Rhodesian freedom fighter shortly after the resolution of another crisis: Moliseng, suffering from malnutrition, is missing from the overcrowded hospital. The play then fast forwards through Lizzie’s college years, when Moliseng, at age fourteen, is murdered in youth riots. Lizzie leaves for America, land of the (she pounds her chest) "free and brave." She returns years later, with her infant son named for her grandfather, to visit her father, her demented mother, and, above all, her beloved Salamina.


This play is powerful. I was lucky to see it on national tour. The video is a little irksome with its rapidly fluxing camera angles accentuating the character shifts--these camera tricks are completely unnecessary as Gien’s performance is sufficient to convince the viewer of the different character perspectives. For the most part, however, the video is true to the play and the power of theater to underscore broad themes (such as racism, power, generosity, shame, growth and love) in the lives of characters about whom the audience cares deeply.

Although parts of the play are autobiographical (e.g., the grandfather’s murder on his farm, the black child harbored illegally, the father as physician, and the author’s emigration to the United States), the play itself is a semi-fictional story set amid the dramatic shifts in twentieth century South African politics and apartheid policies.

8/10/06: Editor's Note: Pamela Gien has written a novel, The Syringa Tree, based on her play. Random House, 2006.


The play has won numerous awards, including Obie Award for Best Play, 2001. Updates on current productions can be obtained at:

Primary Source

Syringa Tree Tapes, 5 River Road, #318, Wilton, CT 06897; see play website (London production) for further information (