march 2017 | Volume 153
David Adams and Sereana Malani. Photo by David Cooper.
Athol Fugard wrote Valley Song in 1995, shortly after the end of apartheid in South Africa. It’s a play that simultaneously looks back at the recent past and forward towards a possible future, revealing some of the hopes and anxieties that nation’s inhabitants—especially its “coloured” people—must have felt. Jovanni Sy’s production, originally produced for Richmond’s Gateway Theatre, offers a clear and moving snapshot of that transitional moment in a few people’s lives.
The central characters are a young coloured woman named Veronica (Sereana Malani) and her 76-year-old grandfather, Buks (David Adams). Adams also plays two white men: the narrator, a playwright (obviously a surrogate for Fugard himself) who wants to buy the farm on which Buks has been a tenant his whole life; and a man who lives in the small village in the Karoo where the farm is located.
The conflict is pretty straightforward. Veronica wants out of this remote dead-end town where her only future would be to clean white people’s houses like her mother and grandmother before her—which is exactly what her grandfather wants her to do. Veronica has a lovely singing voice (as does Malani) and a knack for composing songs. She aspires to go to Johannesburg, take voice lessons and become a professional singer.
Buks, though, is very much tied to this little plot of land where he has lived his whole life, and he has much invested in Veronica’s staying there to cook and clean for him. We also learn that his daughter—Veronica’s mother—ran away to the big city with a boy, broke her parents’ hearts, got herself pregnant (with Veronica) and died. So Buks can rationalize his possessiveness of Veronica, and his desire for things not to change, by arguing that he is just trying to prevent her from suffering the same ignominious fate as her mother.
Fugard tries to make Buks as sympathetic as possible under the circumstances, but it’s a pretty one-sided fight. Veronica has logic, emotion and history on her side. Buks is patriarchal and irrational, and in a scene where he tries to ingratiate himself with the white man who will likely buy the farm, he is embarrassingly obsequious. Adams fully commits to the character’s love of the land, but also to his anger and fear of change, making it easy to see why Veronica’s mother must have left, and why she will, too. Ultimately, Fugard lets Buks off the hook, creating a sentimental ending where things unfold in the best possible way.
Not only does Veronica clearly have right on her side, but Malani makes her so energetic and charming that we can’t help rooting for her all the way. There’s a lovely chemistry between the two actors that also contributes to our good feeling about the ending.
Valley Song is probably Fugard’s most optimistic play, his tentative vision of a new South Africa singing from a new songbook as it approached a new century. That vision has yet to be fulfilled.
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