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Author chronicles horrors of apartheid

Pamela Gien would prefer not to choose when asked whether she is an actress who writes or a writer who acts.

"Oh, what a terrible question!" the South African-born actress and author responded inside the Studio Arena Theatre lobby Wednesday.

Actually, she doesn't have to choose. Her one-woman play, "The Syringa Tree," is playing to rapturous reviews at the Studio Arena and has recently been expanded into a novel, copies of which Gien signed for admirers of her work Wednesday, both in the Studio Arena lobby and earlier at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Amherst.

"You know, I came to writing later in my life, but I've been an actor my whole life," Gien said, while signing copies of her book.

"The Syringa Tree" is an absorbing autobiographical tale that traces the journey of a vibrant and curious 6-year-old girl as she confronts the confusing horrors of apartheid in South Africa.

Gien, who has acted both on the stage and on television, has performed the play Off-Broadway. "The Syringa Tree" has earned her an OBIE Award for Best Play and was the recipient of the Drama-Logue Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre.

The success of the play led her to write a novel based on the events that take place in the show, in which one actress performs 27 different characters spanning different races and generations.

"It's such an unexpected gift to me to be championed . . . to write in this way, to have the play have the life that it has had, to be commissioned by Random House to write the novel. Through the years now that I've been writing, I've come to humbly think of myself as a writer," Gien said.

Deborah Lovallo of North Buffalo showed up at the Studio Arena on Wednesday to see the show for a second time and purchase a copy of Gien's novel, as well as a videotape of Gien performing the show.

"It was amazing -- amazing," Lovallo said of the play, while waiting in line for Gien to autograph her book. "Someone asked me afterwards how I felt and I said I was exhausted."


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