Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1996
Three different countries. Shared language. Disparate cultures. But the same positive response to “Valley Song”.
“As they say in the vernacular,” declares 63 year-old playwright Athol Fugard, “I’m on a roll.”
Over the past year, in Johannesburg, New York and London, Fugard’s latest play has been touching the hearts of audiences in a big and impressive way. Not that the stubbornly defiant political voice of South Africa hasn’t made waves before. He scored major hits with intimate, anti-apartheid plays such as “The Blood Knot”, “Boesman and Lena”, “Sizwe Bansi is Dead”, “Master Harold… and the Boys”, “The Road to Mecca”, “A Lesson from Aloes”, “My Children! My Africa!” and “Playland”.
But each of those plays was set against a backdrop of racism and despair. Fugard has been arrested, vilified, castigated in his own country for obstinately speaking out against government policies. But he has clearly captured a time, a place and a diverse people. His plays are small, very individualized and particular, but distinctly universal, embracing broad themes of loneliness, poverty, suffering, prejudice.
“Valley Song” is different, primarily because it emerges from an optimistic national climate. With recent democratic elections, a new South Africa is dawning, and where there was once just a faint ray of hope, the horizon is now bursting with promise.
Some, perhaps the playwright among them, worried that Fugard might run out of ideas if apartheid was abolished. But he is exploding with as much inspiration as exhilaration.
“Valley Song” celebrates freedom. Fugard even wrote himself into the piece. Then he played The Author, a character named Athol Fugard, in the South African, American and English premieres; he will reprise the role next year at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., but he is not involved in the West coast debut at the La Jolla Playhouse (May 19-June 23).
“It’s something I’ve never done before in the theater,” confessed the warm and affable playwright, on the phone from London. “I try to be myself. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you “be” yourself or “act” yourself? I can’t make up my mind which one I’m doing, but I’m nervous every night.
“One of the wonderful things I’ve found, as I’ve moved from South Africa to the USA to London, is that audiences have responded to the story in the same way; they pick up on the same themes. The reception has surpassed anything I’d hoped for.
“I think people are just hungry for stories. There are no fancy gimmicks here. Just simple storytelling. I’ve also struck on a very good formula, a combination of a beautiful young woman and an old man. There’s something for everyone,” he says, laughing.
“It’s the retelling of an old story, a human story. The political element is only background. A young life has to leave and take on the challenge of a new future. The old life doesn’t want to let go.” (It’s sort of his “Cherry Orchard”, I suggest). “Yes, I guess so,” he agrees, tickled by the comparison to the Chekhov classic about the old Russia giving way to the new. “That’s just what audiences plug into.”
In the play, the Author, a white man, is both narrator and character. When he’s inside the action, he’s a potential buyer of land for a writing retreat. Subtly, repeatedly, he transforms himself into Abraam Jonkers, a 76-year-old, illiterate “colored” man (South African term for mixed racial descent), a tenant farmer on that land. The widower is raising his 17 year-old granddaughter, Veronica, an aspiring singer who wants to leave the arid South African Karoo and make her way in the big city.
Vincent Canby, of the New York Times, called the piece “uncharacteristically self-searching…. a tone poem written for three voices and two performers.”
When asked about the Author’s comment that he is “disenchanted about the make-believe world of theater,” Fugard admits, “it was just a passing phase. Many times, I would become disenchanted with the theater. Then I would fall passionately in love with it again. It’s like that in any love relationship… This play has made me so conscious of how profoundly indebted I am to the theater for the wonderful life it’s given me. In forty years as playwright, director and actor, there’s not a single day I could look back on and regret.
“I also know that the artists in South Africa — the poets, painters, novelists, playwrights — all of us who stood up and spoke out, emphatically made a contribution to the changes in the country, and to the virtually bloodless transition. The arts subliminally prepared the way….
“As for the arts community in the USA, I think there’s got to be renewed and passionate political commitment. Everyone has to stand up and be counted…
“One of the extraordinary things about America is that, all around, there are these little oases of commitment to real and meaningful theater, theater of sanity and real values. The La Jolla Playhouse is one of those, both in terms of the vision for theater and the standards it sets. I insisted that La Jolla do the West coast premiere.”
In the meantime, Fugard gets back to work. “Athol Fugard the writer is already getting impatient,” he chuckles. “I’m already fiddling around with images and ideas. Believe me, there’s going to be another one.”
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.