a woman in waiting (South Africa/UK) by Thembi Mtshali and Yael Farber, directed by Farber, with Mtshali. Presented by Arts International at the Studio Theatre (235 Queen's Quay West). April 3-5 at 8 pm, matinees April 5-6 at 2 pm. $35.
The Syringa Tree (USA) written and performed by Pamela Gien, directed by Larry Moss. Presented by Matt Salinger at the du Maurier Theatre (231 Queen's Quay West). April 23-26 at 8 pm, April 27 at 7 pm, matinee April 26 at 2 pm. $40-$60. Rating: NNNNN
when nelson mandela was released from prison in 1990, one of the first people he greeted was Thembi Mtshali."Thank you for entertaining me while I was in jail," he told the actor, who had starred in a weekly TV sitcom in South Africa. "You gave me so much hope."
This episode forms one of the most moving moments in Mtshali's autobiographical solo show, A Woman In Waiting.
"I had no idea he would be watching," says Mtshali on the phone from Johannesburg. "The program, called It's Good, It's Nice, wasn't political, it was just a comedy to make anyone laugh."
A Woman In Waiting is Mtshali's (she co-write the piece with director Yael Farber) account of growing up under apartheid, the drudgery and humiliation of domestic service to white families, the fear of night raids in the townships and the bit of luck that led to her becoming a performer.
Waiting provides the central metaphor -- whether it's a young schoolgirl Thembi waiting 12 months to see her parents at Christmas, or an older girl waiting all day to see her domestic servant mother return home exhausted, or a naive young mother (Mtshali hadn't known how babies were born) looking after white families' children while her own child was at home.
Mtshali sees waiting as a female phenomenon.
"I had always seen women waiting for things," she explains. "Trains, buses. They waited for their husbands working in the mines. My sister breast-fed my baby while I looked after white children. During the reconciliation hearings, women were waiting to hear what had happened to their children and husbands, people who had disappeared."
And the cycle of waiting continues.
"When we got our independence, we all thought we were going to live a peaceful life," recalls Mtshali, whose show enjoyed a successful run in London's West End two years ago.
"We might have won the struggle for freedom and power, but we still have the struggle of economics. People are living in townships in poverty. I've lost three sisters to AIDS. There are different fights now."
In a savvy programming move, the festival also presents another look at life in South Africa, this time from a white woman's perspective. But it, too, is filled with violence, struggle and forgiveness.
Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree began life as a writing exercise for actors. Gien, who was studying with acting coach Larry Moss (who counts among his students Helen Hunt, Hilary Swank and Jason Alexander), was asked to turn to a fellow student and tell a story.
When she was 10, a man walked onto Gien's grandparents' farm in South Africa and murdered her grandfather, a humanitarian who allowed black families to live on his farm when it was illegal to do so.
"I hadn't thought of that incident in 30 years," Gien recalls on the phone from her home in Orange County, California. "The family never spoke of it. I'd never realized the fear I carried with me."
From that incident, Gien recalled her childhood self driving home from her grandfather's funeral, trying to make sense of the unimaginable, or creeping down to her black servants' rooms to hear political songs.
Unlike Mtshali's story, however, The Syringa Tree is only partly autobiographical. Although it's rooted in two actual events -- the murder of her grandfather and her doctor father's delivery of a black child in her white suburban home (when that was illegal) -- Gien decided to "write slightly away from myself" to make the play more universal.
"It's the journey of many people, whether from South Africa or not," she can say now, after shepherding the script through success in New York (where she won an Obie) and London, and after writing the work's screenplay. "It's about family, our connections and our responsibilities to one another and ourselves."
And just as Mtshali found a central metaphor in a country waiting for liberation, Gien saw a symbol for what she wanted to tell in the syringa tree.
"It's the refuge of the young child, a place she goes to escape and see her imaginary friends," Gien explains. "But it was also where black people would hide from the police at night. They'd climb up into the tree so they wouldn't be seen.
"It's also a metaphor for families, how we're all part of something that grows in the world. In African mythology, the spirits of our ancestors fly into the trees when they die. So in a way, all the people who've come before us live in that tree." firstname.lastname@example.org