Athol Fugard and his latest play have now been seen in a fair number of the world’s English-speaking capitals, but “Valley Song” seems fresher than ever. The play blooms with a buoyant hope that’s been largely and understandably absent from the canon of the playwright most closely associated with chronicling the terrible human toll taken by South Africa’s late, unlamented apartheid system.
Although Fugard’s plays have often been deeply rooted in his own history, “Valley Song” may be his most overtly personal, as he takes the stage as himself, the Author, ruminating on a handful of pumpkin seeds that evoke the miracle of regeneration that is the play’s richest symbol.
He introduces Buks (also played by Fugard), the 76-year-old “coloured” tenant farmer who’s worked the land in South Africa’s Karoo valley all his life, and still derives a sensual pleasure from it that he speaks of with awe. But though to Buks the land is as it ever was, the country is on the cusp of change. As the play’s simple story unfolds, we see both the rich fruits of that change and the painful price it exacts in Buks’ life.
The new spirit abroad in the land is magnificently alive in his granddaughter Veronica (LisaGay Hamilton), a young woman whose soul hasn’t been shaped under apartheid. She has her bursting heart set on “romance and adventure,” even if she can only catch glimpses of the future she dreams of as a singing star by watching a white woman’s TV, standing on a box outside and peering in the window.
Hamilton gives a performance here that genuinely merits the much-overused phrase “tour de force.” At first she seems a little too intent on charming the audience, but her antic energy and the joy that shines from her face when she sings make the potential thwarting of Veronica’s young hopes as terrifying to the audience as it is to her. When the white woman whose TV she’s been feasting on dies, Hamilton grows quiet as Veronica’s spirit seems to crumble before us, and your heart leaps out to her.
But Buks, two generations removed from Veronica, only sees the danger in her dreams. The tragedy of his life was the loss of his daughter Caroline, who ran away to Johannesburg and died there just after Veronica was born. He grew up in a world where the only surety, the only happiness, was in carefully keeping his head down, and keeping hope within the bounds of his circumscribed life: the land, his home and the church, where such humility was glorified.
For Veronica, the land is a hateful thing: “It feeds us, but it takes our lives,” she says defiantly. Where Buks looks at the mountains that ring the valley and sees a reflection of man’s smallness that is a comfort in his humble life, Veronica sees a cage, an obstacle to be leaped over with the price of a train ticket to Johannesburg, for which she’s been secretly saving.
The tug-of-war between these two over Veronica’s future — Buks hopes the Author, who may be buying the land, will hire her as a maid, an idea she dismisses contemptuously — is played out in short scenes shot through with a lyrical poetry that gives both characters their due: Fugard’s writing gives great beauty to Buks’ love of the land and his quiet dignity, and gives a shimmering, infectious appeal to Veronica’s exuberance, so brilliantly captured in Hamilton’s performance.
The deep love between these two characters who are so painfully at odds shines through both performances in myriad small but telling gestures, as when Veronica rubs her foot affectionately on Buks’ knee as he tells her a story.
“Valley Song” is a clear distillation of a particular mood in a particular country at a particular time, but as with the best of Fugard’s work, it is also a perfectly focused picture of a universal human predicament: the eternal clash of youthful hope and the painful wisdom of age, and life’s boundless ability to dash our dreams, from the humblest to the grandest.