The bearded old man standing alone on a bare stage is one of the world’s leading theatre artists. He wears a weathered green vest and baggy trousers, and in his open hand is a cluster of white pumpkin seeds. Athol Fugard is playing himself—a successful white author—in the opening scene of Valley Song, his new drama that ran for six days at the World Stage festival in Toronto. Fugard is telling his audience about an old colored man, Abraam Jonkers, a poor tenant farmer who grows pumpkins and other crops in the dry interior of South Africa. As he demonstrates how Abraam plants his seeds, Fugard’s voice and manner subtly shift, and in another moment he has become the old man. Then Abraam’s teenage granddaughter, Veronica (Esmeralda Bihl), arrives, and the story is under way.
Valley Song is a watershed play for Fugard—his first since the collapse of apartheid two years ago. Throughout his 40-year career, Fugard has drawn on his outrage at South Africa’s institutionalized racism to help power such dramas as The Road to Mecca and My Children! My Africa! But the mood in Valley Song is different.
Gone is the shadow of the police state. Freedom is in the air. Veronica wants to leave her beloved grandfather and move to Johannesburg. She wants to get a job, to take singing lessons, to follow her dream of becoming a performer. And what stands in the way is not the old, repressive political system, but Abraam himself. With his own daughter (Veronica’s mother) and wife dead, Veronica is all he has. He wants her to stay in the village and take up the domestic work that was good enough for her ancestors.
In a role that could have tempted a young actor into precocity or shrillness, Bihl projects a warm, naïve exuberance that draws the heart. As for Fugard, he lends Abraam a wonderfully earthy integrity, lit from within by an elfish delight in simple things. Something very potent happens between the two actors. They give the relationship between the old man and young girl an archetypal force, as though each were the face of the other's unconscious wisdom.
Veronica’s troubled longing for the future is also South Africa’s. If its determination for a better future is anything as strong as hers, it may well get there yet.
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