Hope Opera

Athol Fugard has written some of the most important plays of our time. His Master Harold . . . and the boys and My Children! My Africa! have presented hard evidence of how South African politics have pried apart the lives of its people. But with the end of apartheid, Fugard--a white South African--has lost the cornerstone of his greatest work, and has had to turn up new conflicts for recent work.

Valley Song, a simple three-character, one-act play, celebrates the end of apartheid and applauds the new South Africa. The play's staging by Arizona Theatre Company evokes the new opportunities of Fugard's revitalized homeland, and is flawed only by its grand scale which occasionally threatens to swallow up the author's wonderful writing.

The story presents a metaphor for the spirit of the new South Africa: A young black woman named Veronica (Tamilla Woodard) dreams of leaving the small, traditional desert village where she grew up. A narrator, known as The Author (Jerome Kilty, a white actor who also plays Buks, the girl's grandfather), tells us that the girl wants to go to Johannesburg and become a famous singer; her grandfather, who raised her after her mother died, insists that she choose a less risky future and become a housekeeper for the white family that owns the land he works. He's afraid of being left alone; she's terrified of staying and contributing to the backwardness of her people.

Beneath the simple story, Fugard's usual agenda prevails. Although apartheid is never mentioned by name, it's there in every speech about heartache and every prayer of hope for a new day.

When the land Buks has tended all his life is bought out from under him, Fugard amplifies the repercussions of the old racist property laws of his country; when the new landowner reveals that he plans to keep Buks on as a partner, it's the playwright commenting on the hopefulness of the new nation. Even Veronica's simple songs (which I found annoying and not particularly well-sung by Woodard) evoke the optimism of a world beyond enforced racism. Fugard's insistence that the play employ one actor to play both men is another subtle device. Both men represent the collective past as well as the recent South African notion that all men are brothers, regardless of skin color.

Unfortunately, in this production, Kilty's transitions between the two characters aren't quick enough, and his performances aren't distinct enough from one another--despite that one is an aged black man and the other a white, presumably younger narrator (The Author is clearly Fugard himself). Kilty relies on a prop to indicate which character he's playing--he pulls out a woolen stocking cap every time he's about to become the black man.

This dual casting works as still more subtext for Fugard's commentary on the end of apartheid: It wasn't that long ago, he seems to be reminding us, that a white man kissing a black woman on a theater stage would have been forbidden in his native country. And if all three of the play's characters are woefully underwritten, it's because they're meant to represent history and opposing sides of an argument, rather than real people.

As Veronica, Woodard attempts to flesh out her character by overacting. At first, I found her happy responses to every situation too intense, and her movements too broad and cartoonlike. But when Veronica's hopes are dashed and her future seems doomed, she crumbles like a wilted flower, which makes her transformation all the more dramatic.

Both actors have mastered the lilting South African accent of their characters, and director David Ira Goldstein has further evoked the South African karoo by retaining the script's South African vernacular (most directors translate the African slang for American productions of this play). If only Goldstein had wrangled the show into a smaller, more intimate theater space, where the distance between the two actors and between the actors and the audience isn't so great. Fugard's writing calls for a subtler, more stripped-down approach; his plays are about his writing, and a simpler staging would have emphasized his rich language.

Fugard's bittersweet play is his first to deal with the new South Africa. He trots out themes of family, loss and the love of one's homeland, but the dismantling of apartheid is still his subtext. Valley Song is a triumphant marker for Fugard, in which he makes the transition from antiapartheid activist to commentator on the new South Africa that his plays have helped to create.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of Valley Song continues through Saturday, November 29, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more information, see Calendar.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela