If there was any question about what would happen to Athol Fugard’s writing once the driving force behind his art was gone, that question is put firmly to rest with his poignantly beautiful new play “Valley Song,” his first work since the end of apartheid. It’s a play in which change is everywhere, and in which the comfort of the old — even when the old is as hopeless as life under racist law — must give way to the uncertainty of the new — even when the new means separation and loneliness.
“I’m not as brave about change as I would like to be,” Buks, the old Coloured man who is one of two characters played by Fugard, says to Veronica (Lisa Gay Hamilton), the 17-year-old granddaughter he has raised from infancy. “It involves letting go, and I’ve discovered that that is a lot harder than I thought it was.”
How much history is packed into those words. A white South African, Fugard has been the theater’s chief witness to the human wreckage that was the result, as well as the legacy, of apartheid, in plays from “The Blood Knot” and “Boesman and Lena” to “Master Harold … and the Boys” and “A Lesson From Aloes.”
Several of those plays were staged at the Manhattan Theater Club, giving the current piece an even greater resonance. (“Song” premiered in the summer in Johannesburg and had its U.S. debut in October at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.; in February, this production travels to the Royal Court in London.)
Perhaps no other playwright of our time so deftly interweaves the political with the personal. Set in Fugard’s beloved Karoo region of South Africa’s arid North Cape province, “Valley Song” begins as an elegy in praise of the fertile land around the village of Nieu-Bethesda (white population, 65, the program informs us; Coloured, or mixed-race, 950). Abraam Jonkers, also known as Buks, has spent most of his life as a tenant farmer on a small plot of land. Now the property has been purchased by a white man (Fugard’s second role), a writer from the city who opens the play with a spirited homage to pumpkin seeds.
Buks is a man of unlimited durability but limited dreams: His worst fear is that Veronica will leave him, which is of course exactly what she wants to do. Not for want of love — they have a rich, warm relationship. But the girl wants to go to Johannesburg to train as a singer, while the city where his daughter died so many years ago represents only heartbreak to Buks. He’d prefer Veronica become a maid in the new owner’s house, an idea that sends her into a rage; were the race laws abolished for nothing?
“You will never see me barefoot, carrying wood on my head with a baby on my back,” she says. “You will never see me on my knees scrubbing a white man’s floor.”
“Valley Song” is as traditional as it is brand new, as joyous and upbeat as it is sentimental; it could be a work of Yiddish theater. Yet clearly it’s a parable as well: Fugard has said Veronica represents the spirit of the “new” South Africa; Buks, the old.
While it’s no surprise to see the playwright essay the two male roles with his customary grace, he also has given Hamilton the role in which this talented actress comes fully into her own. She commands the stage with a completely seductive blend of fearlessness and self-deprecating humor.
“You’re breaking my heart,” she sings to Buks (Veronica has a habit of making up songs on the spot) — unable to keep a smile from crossing her face. It’s a very physical, intimate performance, and there’s a winning comfort level between Fugard and Hamilton; you believe this old ex-army corporal has raised this spirited girl, that they’re family.
Susan Hilferty’s set and costumes are unerringly simple — a draped backdrop, comfort clothes — as is Dennis Parichy’s soft lighting scheme. “Valley Song” is one of Fugard’s smaller plays, but it’s got enormous heart.