Aug 10, 2007
V 35 Issue 32

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A Conversation with Gin Hammond, Actress
A Conversation with Gin Hammond, Actress
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien
Centerhouse Theater
August 18, 19, and 20.

What's the basic plot of this play?

It concerns two families, one white, one black, during Apartheid, that love each other. Circumstances and politics pull them apart and prevent them from continuing their familial relationship. Ultimately, they realize that their struggle means something and that justice and freedom are worth struggling for. I hope that doesn't make it look like a "downer" play. It definitely contains humor, and music and hope. There is a live musician on stage with me.

Why did Pamela Gien write this play?

Pamela Gien is South African. She was in an acting class in LA and did an exercise of meditating and then snapping out of it and saying what the first thing was that came to mind. For her, she thought of the murder of her (white) grandparents in South Africa. The freedom fighters crossing their land murdered them on their way through. Her grandparents had been very supportive of their movement, but they didn't know that.

She was pressed to write it down as a play. She was encouraged to make it a one-woman show and act in it. It had its world premiere at ACT Theatre in Seattle and went on to New York and won the 2001 Drama Desk award for Best Play and an Obie (the Village Voice award to off-Broadway theater).

In 2002, I auditioned and was chosen to do the national tour to Connecticut, Pasadena, Mountain View, CA, and ACT in Seattle (among other places) and that's when I met my husband. When I got the role, I went to South Africa to do research and meet Pamela's parents, since the play is mostly autobiographical. I looked through the family albums and recorded their voices. It got great reviews.

Three years later, Studio Theatre in Washington, DC, placed it in their season and I did the play there. I won the 2005 Helen Hayes Outstanding Lead Actress award, which considers productions done in Washington, DC. Around that time, US Army Entertainment asked me to bring the production to Heidelberg, Germany. From there I was invited to Cambridge and Edinborough and Clonmel Island in Ireland. I might go to Norway next year with it.

The production here at Seattle Center is also a fundraiser for a family that lives in very poor conditions that I met when I was in South Africa, who welcomed me and taught me songs that are used in the show and let me record them. The grandmother and the husband recently died, suddenly, and I want to help them pay tuition for the children to go to school.

Who should see this production?

Children aged 10 and up. Children get a lot out of this even when they don't know a lot of the history of the story. They understand the heartfelt connections between people.

How does this play resonate differently in the different places you have performed it?

For US Army Entertainment (a branch of the military different from USO), in Germany, what seemed to resonate was the idea of what it is to be a foreign occupier, to occupy someone else's country, and also the reality of violence, what that does to families. Most of the audience at that time was wives and husbands of people in active duty. The threat of violence is an every day reality in the lives of the characters in The Syringa Tree.

In Ireland, what resonated was the sense of family unity and what happens when a member of the family is threatened, goes missing or is killed. Also the idea of having your territory occupied, because they had the British there for 800 years. And not being allowed to speak your own language (the British had tried to suppress Irish). One of the things that sparked the Soweto riots of June 16, 1976 was that there had just been a law passed demanding that all schools teach only in Afrikaans and that was the straw that broke the camel's back and sent the children rioting in the streets. It started as a massive peaceful march and then the children got gunned down.

Apparently a prominent white doctor who was helping the black South African movement was stoned to death and made a symbol of white supremacy. He ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There's a part in the play where the white mother needs to go into Soweto to find a missing black child and it's important for people to know, when they see the play, that she was risking her life when she did that.

The play has a lot of different characters in it. One of the things the play shows is that nobody is completely innocent and no one is completely guilty, either.

In Cambridge, England, it made people reflect upon the history of the "empire" and see how far they've come, because they have such a wonderful multicultural society, now. In the U.S., I'm always surprised at how many South Africans make it to the show. Not a lot of South Africans like to talk about their history, but they appreciate it and sometimes get very emotional. I've really appreciate the feedback they've given me about how well I was able to help them recreate a sense of "home."

What do you have planned for the future?

I just got an NEA grant to develop a performance piece that I'll be doing in May of 2008, at the Broadway Performance Hall. It's focused on a documentary that I'm doing on my aunt who went to Howard University and became a doctor in the 50's. One of her adventures was that she visited Auschwitz (concentration camp) in 1948, in Germany. I'm focusing on that visit. I'll be incorporating the documentary into a multi-media presentation. So, I hope everyone will keep an eye out for advertising for that event and will come see it.

For more information, call (800) 838-3006 Brown Paper Tickets or go to or

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