The Syringa Tree to return to Off-Broadway

The Syringa Tree to return to Off-Broadway

Thomas Burns Scully

  • New York Columnist

The first time I had the pleasure of seeing Babette Godefroy perform on stage was when I took a trip Off-Broadway in December 2014 to see a play called The Syringa Tree. A South African apartheid play in which one woman plays twenty-four characters. Pamela Gien’s semi-autobiographical writing conjured up all-too-recent memories of systematic racism and drew inevitable favorable comparisons to Athol Fugard. In a staggering marriage of text and performance, Babette Godefroy brought this incredibly challenging piece to life. Godefroy is a Dutch-born performer, now taking up residence in Old New Amsterdam. She has big plans for The Syringa Tree and her track record would seem to affirm that these will come to fruition.

“I think I’m like most actors, I just want to work all the time. Preferably on pieces that mean something to me, but just being steeped in work is what makes me thrive and feel ultimately alive.” Godefroy says when asked about her crowded resume, “There’s no mystery to it, I just have a tireless passion for the art” When you read her credits, you can see what she means: five high-profile shows in the past year, extensive training from Cambridge University, to Hunter College, to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Even travel across large swathes of the world. “Like I said, I like to work all the time,” she smiles, “I can’t get enough of it. It’s the only way to grow as an artist and as a human being.”

Her shows during the past year have included New York Theater Festival selection WEGO at the Hudson Guild Theatre, and Present Laughter and musical Big River, both with the distinguished and award-winning interACT Productions in South Orange, NJ. In these shows she played everything from a psychologist helping a child through a near-death experience, to the female lead in a witty English comedy. In doing so she proved herself to be an elite actor at the top of her field, capable of ascending the highest levels of tragedy and comedy. It’s rare to meet an actor who can do both well, but it’s truly exceptional to meet one who can do so masterfully, as Godefroy can. “I love to put in the work. I do my research, I get up on the stage and trust myself.” She adds: “I also keep positive people around, that lift me up and celebrate artistic collaboration.”

Even though she has had great success performing many leading roles, the jewel in her crown has always been The Syringa Tree, in which she was directed by noted Broadway and Off-Broadway master of all trades: Barbara Rubin. Babette admits: “In the beginning of the rehearsal process I was intimidated because the play is an enormous task to take on and the responsibility to give the story the justice that it deserves is huge. But I was so inspired by the story, and having Barbara Rubin (a South-African native) there to guide me was invaluable.” Babette co-produced the play with her cleverly named production company: New Amsterdam Productions. “I’ve never felt so exhausted, but then again, I have never felt so elated,” she said of the experience. “And I miss it terribly.” 

Many industry professionals, who attended The Syringa Tree in December 2014, encouraged Babette to produce another, longer, run of it. Although plans are still embryonic, she is already in talks with The Syringa Tree’s original Off-Broadway Producer, Matt Salinger, about staging an extended run at one of Manhattan’s better-sized theaters. “I think there’s a need for this play,” Babette says, “I think there will always be a need for this play… even though apartheid ended over twenty years ago, the experience of a people and the resilience and strength of the human spirit shared in this piece resonates with audiences today just as much as it did in the late 90s. Stories like these never lose their moral weight and therefore their necessity to be told. Back in 2014, it conjured up strong reactions among the people who saw my performance; it was humbling and very powerful, and I know it will be powerful today. Especially juxtaposed with everything that we have been seeing in the news lately.” Babette’s empowering words solidify her incredible dedication to this piece; playing twenty-four completely distinct characters, of different ages, genders, and ethnicities is a tall order for any actor. But anyone willing to go through that self-inflicted rigor, and then want to return to it, must have something important to say.

“I’ve never felt a need like this before, a need to share this piece of art with the world. And not in a ‘Look at me! I’m on stage and in the spotlight!’ kind-of-way,” Babette says, “It’s like reading a beautiful, deeply moving poem and you just have to share it with someone you love. That’s what this feels like to me.” Babette is justified in what she says; The Syringa Tree is a magnificent show, in no small part due to her powerhouse performance. Its return to the stage will be a most welcome one. The story is gripping and her interpretation of it is inspiring. Godefroy blushes at the comment; “If I’ve taken a piece of theatre that means something to me, and made it mean something equally powerful to someone else, then I’ve done something that I thought might take my whole life to achieve. To think that at my age feels insane, it can’t be true,” she hesitates, “but it’d really be something, wouldn’t it?” It certainly is.

For more information, see: http://www.babettegodefroy.com/

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