Theater, Foreign Relations Council partner

BY NINA EARNEST | MARCH 25, 2011 7:20 AM

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In The Syringa Tree, one woman takes on 24 separate roles.

But the play itself subtly wrestles with centuries of South Africa’s fragmented history.

“South Africa, in my philosophical view, is a country that failed to manage difference,” said Lyombe Eko, the codirector of the African Studies Program at the University of Iowa and the speaker for the Thursday Theatre Talk about the upcoming production.

The play, which will run from April 1 through April 17 at Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., is playwright Pamela Gien’s semiautobiographical take on the South African apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s.

Riverside Theatre and the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council cosponsored “South Africa, Then and Now” at the theater to examine the historical and social background of the upcoming production.

Thais Winkleblack, the president of the Iowa City organization, said the council hosted play director Sean Lewis and actor Saffron Henke to discuss the artistry of the production at the group’s customary luncheon on March 18. In turn, Winkleblack said, the council introduced the political view to the theater community.

“It does help give a political and historical setting to the play, which I think would be fun for audience members to mentally put themselves in that space before the play,” Winkleblack said.

Eko described the political events of apartheid and his personal media exposure to the issue while growing up in West Africa. He discussed African reaction to the Soweto massacre that left hundreds dead and the importance of the radio in propagating the message.

“You can’t stop sound,” said Miriam Gilbert, a UI English professor and the moderator of Thursday Theater Talks.

“You can’t. But the South African government tried,” Eko told the crowd of roughly 30 people.
Audience member Margaret Tewson, 65, told the audience she briefly stopped in South Africa as a 24-year-old sailing from Australia to England in 1969. She said she was taken aback by all the ethnic rules — separate lines at the dock, different-colored benches in the park, and divided sections for four ethnic groups on the beach.

Eko agreed, describing an arrangement that “scarred” all ethnic groups in its need for order.
“It’s like a prison where the guard is not allowed to leave,” Eko said.

Henke, the sole cast member of the play, told The Daily Iowan that some people she has spoken with do not know the history of the apartheid.

“The fact that people don’t know this far down the line is really important,” the 37-year-old said. “It’s important to set a background for the play.”

And director Lewis, 31, said the play is first seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl. This allows the audience to “fall in love” with characters before thinking about politics, he said. In doing so, it can provide a new view to events.

“It manipulates your experience with things you think you know,” he said. “I think that’s the best thing theater does.”

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