Professional actors. Professional productions.

The Moving and Evocative Tale of The Syringa Tree Comes to Riverside Theatre April 1-17

March 31, 2011 - 10:30 AM

One actor, 24 characters, set against the backdrop of apartheid-era South Africa.


The Syringa Tree by South African playwright Pamela Gien is a personal and deeply evocative story of an abiding love between two families---one black, one white---and the two children who are born into their shared household.


The play follows these families’ destinies for four generations, from early apartheid to the present day free South Africa. Through the eyes of various characters---young, old, black, white, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Jewish, English---the complexities of the world they share are revealed.


Told through the eyes of a six-year-old girl named Lizzy, and a wide variety of other characters, The Syringa Tree is a one-woman play demanding an array of roles and is a based on Gien’s experiences growing up in Johannesburg.


The Syringa Tree is directed by Sean Christopher Lewis, an award winning playwright, actor, and director and features professional actor Saffron Henke, who takes on all roles in this production.


“The way I’ve created all of these people has been to pick a simple gesture or vocal choice for each one that is very different from all the others,” said Henke.  “In South Africa there are three major dialects:  English, Afrikaans, and numerous tribal accents like Xhosa and Zulu.  There are actually many tribes, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m choosing to do just one general dialect.  All of these accents help to add another dimension to the work I’m doing, and hopefully will help the audience differentiate the characters.  I try to make choices that are theatrical.  It’s less about having the accent be perfect and more a question of finding the character’s voice.” 


Henke has performed all over the world and was the 2005 recipient of the Princess Grace Foundation Honorarium for Emerging Artists for her performance in The Syringa Tree at the Sacramento Theatre Company.


“When I did this show in 2005, I identified more with the children, especially six-year-old Lizzy who is the narrator. This time I’ve found that I identify more with the parents, particularly Lizzy’s mother, Eugenie.  That’s surprising to me,” Henke said.  “As I come back to these people, I still feel like I know them well, but the way I think about them has changed, and so my support of their journey changes with that.  I used to see Eugenie as nervous and weak, now I see her as the hero.” 


The Syringa Tree is directed by Lewis, an award winning playwright, actor, and director, known for his politically charged works. Lewis’s solo theatre work Killadelphia has premiered in over 30 cities and has won numerous awards, including the National New Play Network’s Smith Prize for Drama. This past summer, Lewis directed Journey to the Dream in Tanzania, East Africa for the International Theatre and Literacy Project.


"Syringa Tree is a specifically challenging piece to direct, Saffron plays around 20 characters of multiple ages, race and gender and often doing 5 or more characters in a single scene at a time,” Lewis said. “It takes a lot of trust between us to develop a theatrical language to invite the audience in. The benefit is how amazing it is to watch once you get going. Although, it's terrifying and complexing from the artistic end when you have to figure out the best way to make Saffron transform into a black South African at a student protest one minute and then see her walking the tarmac at an airport literally seconds later it's incredibly magical to see her pull it off. It's a truly heart wrenching and impactful display of theatrical fireworks.”


The Syringa Tree features scenic design by Shawn Johnson, costume design by Emily White, lighting design by Courtney Schmitz Watson, and sound design by Lewis.


The Syringa Tree runs April 1-17. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.


Tickets are $26 for adults, $23 for 60 and over/30 and under, $12 for youth (18 and under). $12 student rush tickets are available 30 minutes prior to the show. Tickets can be purchased online at or by phone at (319) 338-7672. Riverside Theatre Box Office is located at 213 N. Gilbert St, Iowa City. Box office hours are: 12 - 4 p.m. Monday – Friday.


Riverside Theatre is Iowa City’s resident professional theatre and is currently celebrating its 30th season.

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