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Rooted in familial ground

'The Syringa Tree,' Pamela Gien's traveling one-woman play, draws on the joy and the sorrow of her years in South Africa.

October 27, 2002|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

Actress Pamela Gien did not want to remember the sad times of her childhood in South Africa. She did not want to remember the injustices she saw or the tragedy that struck her family there.

But after being ignored for three decades, those memories rose sharply to the surface in a Los Angeles acting class exercise. Vibrant and malleable, they took shape first as improv, then as a written performance and finally as a play that has now traveled to New York and London and home again.

Gien's one-woman play, "The Syringa Tree," winner of off-Broadway's 2001 Obie Award for best play, makes its Los Angeles debut Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse. From her first appearance as a 6-year-old child on a swing, Gien (in some performances here) portrays 24 characters, young and old, black and white. Laughing, crying, singing and dancing, she is alternately her parents, their servants, Afrikaans preachers praying for rain, and whites and blacks torn apart by apartheid.

Offstage, she appears far more inhibited. Gien, 45, talks in a quiet, sometimes barely audible voice, seeming almost overwhelmed by her play's success. Now finishing a screenplay and a novel based on the play, the slight, elegant actress gets teary-eyed speaking of the night Oprah Winfrey came to a performance in New York, calls her play "the little engine that could" and notes that she is keeping a "gratitude journal."

Like her theatrical stand-in, Gien grew up in luxury in a Johannesburg suburb. One of her black nannies did actually give birth to a child at Gien's family home. Her physician father was indeed required to have separate consulting rooms for white and black patients -- each room with its own staircase and entry. And the central action in her play, the murder of her grandfather by a Rhodesian rebel, is true.

Also culled from memory are Gien's convent school visits to less fortunate schoolchildren, and her experiences as a university student at the time of the Soweto uprising of 1976. But Gien prefers not to differentiate fact from fiction. Her play is "semiautobiographical," she says. "It is a fictional story that's deeply invested with my feeling about my life."

When Gien first started on the play, Gien says, she used not only her own name but also exact names and places. "But I didn't feel relaxed about writing that way. I discovered when I changed certain things and allowed myself to write in a fictional way, I had much more freedom to be expressive and poetic. I had a much wider canvas."

That canvas, set largely in '60s South Africa, couldn't be much more dramatic, adds Susan Dietz, who will open "The Syringa Tree" at Beverly Hills' Canon Theatre a few days after it closes in Pasadena. "You're completely with her, and at the end, you've lived a life," Dietz says. "Her versatility is extraordinary as an actress, but it's the storytelling that's so magical."

A grandfather's tale

Gien's play grew out of a storytelling exercise in 1996 when Los Angeles acting teacher Larry Moss told Gien and her classmates to turn to the person next to him or her and tell a story. "He said it could be something that happened today at the bank or something that happened a long time ago," Gien recalls. "And as I turned to the person next to me, the story of what happened on my grandfather's farm [in 1967] came roaring into my mind.

"I hadn't thought about it for 30 years -- we never talked about it in my family -- and I have no idea why it came into my mind. I actually shuddered because it came so strongly, and just as I thought I'd try to think of something else, Larry said, 'Don't censor whatever it is that just came into your mind. Tell that story. It will choose you.'

"So I began to tell, as much as I could bear, about my thoughts driving home from my grandfather's funeral after he was attacked on his farm. I was about 10 years old then, and sitting in Larry's class as an adult, recounting those thoughts, I realized I was trying to make sense of the unimaginable and trying to put some logic to what had happened.

"I went home after class, and I was remembering so many things that were long-forgotten. The floodgates of memory were opening."

This time was different

The next part of the class was to stage the story she'd told. Gien had acted in South African television and theater before coming to the U.S. in 1984. She spent a year on ABC's "One Life to Live" and was a principal member of the American Repertory Theatre company in Cambridge, Mass., for five seasons. But those and other acting jobs were different -- neither the stories nor the writing was hers.

Encouraged by the class' reaction to her 20-minute presentation -- her classmates were on their feet, crying, she says -- she started writing first a screenplay, then a play. "I never had the confidence to write anything myself before, but I began to write," she says. "I wept a lot as I wrote. I laughed a lot. Then, at the end of six or seven weeks, I brought the material to Larry."

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