I’ve never seen LaSonya Natividad perform without smiling. That streak continued through the beginning of Rochester Civic Theatre's “The Syringa Tree,” set in apartheid South Africa. Natividad plays Salamina, the affectionate and beloved nanny to the central character and narrator, Lizzy Grace.
By the end of the show, all three actors, having portrayed more than two dozen roles spanning multiple generations, convey deep and wide-ranging emotions, but none more so than Natividad.
In her debut show, she does not hold back, and is not timid when Salamina is brought to her knees with grief thinking she lost her toddler daughter, Moliseng. When Natividad later portrays Moliseng years later at age 14, standing defiant to police during a student uprising, her defiance, anger and determination saturates the theater like vaporized fuel and set the audience for an emotional flash point.
Kami Sim shows excellent range jumping from a white 6-year-old growing up during apartheid and her physician father who helps Salamina deliver Moliseng. The family hides the child from authorities because Salamina doesn’t have the proper paperwork to have a child under apartheid law.
Stef Stafford plays various characters, including the grown Lizzy, in a moving reunion with Salamina.
The set is sparse — featuring a single swing. That leaves a wide palette for lighting to paint the scene with both subtle and big changes. The fiery sunsets of South Africa give way to a sparkling array of stars so convincingly that you might want to bring a jacket to the show.
The script is an autobiographical piece by Pamela Gien, who grew up in South Africa, but it’s a relevant show as demonstrations and protests against police brutality and for racial equality continue across the U.S.
When Natividad makes a defiant stand as Moliseng, her name and her cause could be any of the recent Black victims of police brutality here in the present-day U.S. That message wasn’t lost on audiences, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement is what motivated Misha Johnson, the Civic’s interim managing director, to select the show, she said.
Even though it was written by a white woman, it’s hard to imagine a white actor delivering the speech. That’s a reason Johnson broke up the parts to three actors instead of having one actor perform it, which is how the show is usually presented.
The actors, sometimes alone on stage, are adept at believably changing roles. Their performances carry heavy topics and themes of racism, power, shame, generosity, understanding and love.
If you go
What: Rochester Civic Theatre’s production of "The Syringa Tree"
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 20, through Saturday, Aug. 22; 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 23; 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27, through Saturday, Aug. 29; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30
Where: Rochester Civic Theatre
Tickets: $30 for adults, $20 for seniors and students, and $15 for livestreams (available for every performance except Aug. 20). Available online at https://www.onthestage.com/show/rochester-civic-theatre/the-syringa-tree-55103/tickets.
More info: Masks are required on the premise at all times.