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Reviewed by:
  • Valley Song
  • Michael Reynolds
Valley Song. By Athol Fugard. Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles. 18 March 1997.

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Figure 1.

Buks (Athol Fugard) and Veronica (LisaGay Hamilton) in Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles’s production of Athol Fugard’s Valley Song, directed by Fugard. Mark Taper Forum. Photo: Jay Thompson.

Throughout the years of apartheid, Athol Fugard’s theatrical work spoke out both against terrible political realities and the equally terrible silences they imposed. With the passing of the apartheid system, Fugard might seem displaced or dated. Nevertheless, his newest play grapples precisely with the “obsolescence” of the old politics and of an aging political playwright in a reborn South Africa.

As writer, director, and actor in this production, Fugard (performing the Author) is the first to cross the stage. With some seeds in his hand and a hat in his back pocket, the Author speaks of spring and rebirth in the Karoo, a vast, arid territory in the middle of South Africa. Designer/associate director Susan Hilferty drapes curtains like sand dunes behind the few boxes which represent the beautiful, barren, veldt-like stage. This sparse set contains the allegorical reach of land and people in the brief prologue. Any sweeping metaphors must be gently and subtly coaxed from the small physical realities of the set and the actors’ performances. And it is with small, precise gestures that the Author disappears. When the hat is plucked from pocket and placed upon Fugard’s head, Buks, the old Coloured farmer, makes his entrance to begin tilling the play’s “real” plot.

The central conflict of this one-act, two-hander is between Buks and his granddaughter, Veronica (Lisa Gay Hamilton). It is an argument ripe with the clichés of intergenerational drama. He is staked to his memory, some long-standing simple dreams of land and family tempered by the harsh realities of life with whites. Buks is also haunted by his daughter’s rebellious and fatal flight to the city. Veronica has no past to bear. She literally sings her future, with “big dreams” of music stardom unattainable in the valley. The contrapuntal beat of age and youth, tradition and dream, thrums at the surface of the play.

But the Author’s presence lingers and returns intermittently with each doff of the knit cap. Fugard gives two very different performances, amazing not least because the transformation of Author and Farmer often occurs between sentences, in the space of a short pause between words. In one dazzling sequence, the Author confidently speaks and stands in the flood of wide white spots. But as the light shifts to cobalt blue, he folds in upon himself. The set seems to shrink to the farm’s back room late at night. The Author falls to his knees and becomes Buks, hands clasped toward heaven and calling weakly to his dead wife. The back-and-forth of Fugard’s dual roles complicates the manifest plot of familial struggle and allows for other readings of the action.

To Veronica, however, the two men may as well be the same person. Throughout, Buks bends and bosses, demanding that his granddaughter confine her singing to their garden or the local choir. While [End Page 103] the Author stands and engages Veronica in well-meaning discussion of her plans, he still patronizes her with aged truisms about the danger of an overly-fertile imagination. She argues with the voice of the old, white or coloured. Being the stand-in for South African youth is a difficult task, but Hamilton is a diva, a whirling dervish. She sings, stomps, smiles, and storms around the stage—she clearly is meant to overshadow the other two characters. This performance is perfectly pitched, with just enough bravura and generosity to affirm the inevitable future without erasing the power of the past. When Buks hallucinates that she is his wife, Veronica softly walks around and around the old man, speaking her name and touching him lightly, drawing him back to the present. Hamilton carefully centers her role not in the flash of Veronica’s dances but in those quieter, more passive moments. She sidesteps...

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