Fugard sings optimistic new ‘Song’

South African playwright Athol Fugard will be singing his “Valley Song,” his latest work, in the United States for three months, starting in early October. The play is currently ending a six-week run here at the Market Theater, where critics have described it as one of Fugard’s best in recent years.

“Song” is set in the playwright’s beloved stomping grounds, the stark, semi-arid Karoo region of this country’s Northern Cape province. It’s the story of a young girl who, on the threshold of her career, needs the courage to step out into an uncertain future; and of an old man – played by the author – who has to find the wisdom to let her go.

For Fugard, whose plays about South Africa under apartheid – including “Master Harold… and the Boys,” “A Lesson From Aloe” and “The Blood Knot” – had no small share of bleakness and pessimism, “Valley Song” marks a fresh beginning.

“When I think back on 40 years of making theater in this country, I can’t think of an experience that has been as exhilarating as this one,” he said in an interview. “It’s woken me up again.”

“Valley Song,” the playwright also admits, is a political metaphor.

“The young woman is the spirit, the embodiment of the new South Africa,” Fugard said. “The old man is the old generation, people like me… we’ve got to find the wisdom to let go.”

It’s a work he could not have written, he said, during the apartheid years.

“This play reflects the optimism I feel at this point in time,” he said. “Four or five years ago, I was still dealing with the past. In a wonderful way, the challenges of the new South Africa have come into my life as a writer. I’ve felt an enormous surge of energy from the reality of the new South Africa. It really has been a rejuvenating experience.”

“Apartheid defined me,” Fugard said. “I’m proud of the work that came out of it, that carries my name, judged just by the standards of good theater.”

His co-star in the American production will be New Yorker Lisa Gay Hamilton, 31, described recently by Variety as a “rising young star” for her portrayal of Isabella in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” The actress, who is black – Fugard is white – spent the first two weeks of September in South Africa, to discuss the play with Fugard and to visit the small farming town of Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo, where the action is set.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to watch the Athol Fugard in his own country,” she said, during a brief stopover in Johannesburg. Fugard said he and Hamilton were already “in sync” even though they will only start rehearsing together on Sept. 26 for a four-week run at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

After the Princeton run, they head across the Hudson River for the Manhattan Theater Club to begin rehearsals on Nov. 29 for a six-week Christmas run beginning Dec. 12. In February, it’s over to London for a monthlong run at the Royal Court Theater.

In America, Fugard said, he and Hamilton will not be working in the shadow of the South African production.

“I’m giving the two of us all the essential liberties of a completely new production,” he said.

“One can have such a good time with this play because at the heart of it are such powerful affirmations,” he said. “It’s about love and courage. It’s a very affirmative experience, to live through the journey of the play – even though it leaves you drained.”

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