A renowned South African playwright, novelist, actor, and director, Athol Fugard is considered by many to be South Africa’s premiere writer. Born in 1932, Fugard has a long string of awards, including the Obie in 1971, Tony Awards in 1975 and 2011, and the New York Drama Critics Awards in 1981 and 1988. He also received an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2005, a movie based on his novel “Tsotsi.” His political views were considered radical and frowned upon by the South African government. So much so, in fact, that his passport was confiscated 1967. For several years, Fugard lived in the U.S. – but returned permanently to South Africa, where he currently resides, in 2012.
Fugard is best known for his political and penetrating plays targeting apartheid (separateness), the South African government policy institutionalizing racism through the Population Registration Act (1950), where every South African was mandated to register his race at birth; the Group Areas Act (1950), in which geographic areas designated where different races might live; 96 percent of the country was designated white; and the Bantu Education Act (1953), in which all non-whites were mandated to attend only government-run schools designed to develop docile, obedient coloreds, Indians, and Bantus.
VALLEY SONG is the first play Fugard wrote after apartheid ended. The play premiered in Johannesburg in 1995, with Fugard playing both the white narrator (author) and the colored farmer (Abram Jonkers aka Buk). Set in Karoo, a semi-arid region of South Africa, the play digs into the relationship between Buk and his 17-year-old granddaughter Veronica – contrasting the differences between youth and age, dreams and tradition, and just how hard it is to make changes after a lifetime of doing things just one way.
Buk (Michael A. Shepperd) has been raising Veronica (Belle Guillory) since she was a new-born after his daughter Caroline died in childbirth. Now Veronica is a teenager gifted with a lovely voice who wants only one thing – to leave the small dusty village where she was raised on Buk’s meager pumpkin farm and seek fame and fortune in the big city. Apartheid has just ended, and she is sure that everything will be different. Buk, however, is not convinced and cannot bear the thought of his only family leaving him – just like Caroline left years before. Then the pot is further stirred when a well-to-do white man (author/Michael A. Shepperd) stops in the village because he’s thinking of buying Buk’s small holding – which, of course, in times past would mean that the village would be designated white and all non-whites would be forced to relocate. But that is the past – where Buk seems to be stuck – even though Veronica, with the passionate optimism of youth, tries to assure him that change is in the wind.
VALLEY SONG is a complex tale focusing on the psyche of each carefully drawn character. Skillfully directed by caryn desai, artistic director of the International City Theatre, the play digs deep into both the struggles posed by the ambiguity of South African racial politics and the conflicts which supersede geography and occur in most families: age vs. youth; predictable, safe stagnation vs. significant unpredictable change; dreams which may come into conflict with tradition; the move to independence and leaving the family home – and just how hard it is to make some very difficult, life-changing choices. Kudos to the two actors who make playing three complicated roles look easy. And let’s not forget the production team. Yuri Okahana-Benson’s set strikes just the right note. Crystal R. Shomph’s light, Kim DeShazo’s costumes, and Dave Mickey’s sound add immeasurably to the overall production.
VALLEY SONG is an intellectual topic seen through the eyes of non-intellectual people whose emotions struggle to be heard. This is a historical and political piece – and also the story of a family being torn apart by the need to grow and change. A family we can all recognize, regardless of where they live.
VALLEY SONG runs through September 11, 2022, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The International City Theatre is located in the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, 330 East Seaside Way, Long Beach, CA 90802. Tickets range from $49 to $52. For information and reservations, call 562-436-4610 or go online.