Strangely enough, South African playwright Athol Fugard's "Valley
Song" seems perfectly at home at The New Repertory Theatre in
Newton, playing to a packed --and weeping-- audience of graying suburbanites
sprinkled with a few younger people and a child or two. I'm graying
myself, and I live in Newton: like the other Newtonites around me I think
that I was surprised to find that I felt personally addressed by the script
and the production, and blessed by it. I wept through my entire purse-supply
of tissues, and when I got home from the play I was impelled to seek out
the perplexed members of my immediate family and hug them. The play's
African imagery and Afrikaans cadences are exotic -- in our land of vast
mechanized agribusinesses even the age-old seasonal round of farm labor,
of planting and growth and harvest, is exotic-- yet in its folk tale
simplicity "Valley Song" speaks to the universals: work and love and loss.
The bridge between here-and-now and long-ago-and-far-away is the tale's narrator, the Author, Fugard himself ( Richard Mawe playing the role Fugard originated) who has come "home" to buy a farm in the Karoo, where he was born. There are many derelict buildings in the Karoo, buildings that once housed the Boer masters who owned the land worked by colored tenant farmers. The Author puts on a knitted watch cap and becomes Abraam Jonkers, the tenant of the farm that has caught his eye, even as he describes the 76 year old man and the rich red earth Jonkers cultivates in the same way as his father did before him.
This is a powerful transformation. If we can believe that a middle-aged white artist can understand and be an old colored farmer, then the barriers between all humans are permeable: we are Everyone and Anyone. With Fugard in the narrator's role, some of the power must come from the writer's own history and character. Playing Abraam Jonkers, who was a corporal in South Africa's colored regiment during the Second World War, New Rep's Richard Mawe doesn't in himself stand for anything but the persuasive gifts of a superlative actor. There are two dialect coaches credited in the program. Mawe must have enlisted their help to find the voices of the two very different men, and then somehow set them before us with an equal ring of truth. Mawe performs this magic double transformation, and that alone is worth grateful tears. As I wept, I remembered a similar flood during Mawe's touching performance in "Someone to Watch Over Me" at the New Rep two seasons ago. What a privilege it is to experience the artistry of this actor in the New Rep's intimate space.
Tia Dionne Hodge plays Abraam's 17-year-old granddaughter Veronica, who was rescued and brought back to the farm when the Jonkers' runaway daughter Caroline died giving birth to her in faraway Johannesburg. Veronica sang when other babies cried, and now she delights in inventing songs of her own. Singing only for her grandfather and for God in the church is no longer enough for Veronica. The girl has peered through neighbor's window and seen famous singers on TV, and she dreams of fame and a life away from the valley. Farming, cooking, cleaning--- she has done these things joyfully, singing as she does them, because she is still nurtured by the her grandfather and the acres he farms. But she doesn't want to cook and clean for a white man, as her grandmother did, or have a farmer husband and a baby -- the old ways aren't for her.
Hodge is luminous as Veronica. She is modest and simple one moment, a clown or a diva the next. Hodge's Veronica has the innocence of a child, and the ignorance of one who has worked most of her young life in silence and isolation, yet she also shows strength of character and the capacity for growth. Though Veronica's dreams seem all the more dangerous because she believes that only big dreams, dreams that are believed in strongly enough, can ever come true, the moment when we realize what will be lost if in the name of love and safety Veronica is denied her dangerous dreams is probably the most painful for an audience made up mostly of parents and grandparents.
The New Rep's physical production has the same confident ease and simplicity
as its actors. Richard Chambers' set model in the lobby shows cracked
red earth, but the thrust stage's actual floor is the yellowish brown
color of scrubbed planks. Gray rectangles of corrugated iron or tin
define the back wall, and a weathered barrel, a chair, and a chest furnish
the stage. The costumes by Stephanie Toews, and John Malinowski's
lighting, are simple but effective -- like Michael Murray's impeccable
direction. I was not as comfortable with the music. Hodge performs
her songs very well, but the songs themselves (by Didi Kriel) were
oddly flavorless. The hymns -- even accompanied by a tape of an African-sounding
chorus -- seemed too American. "Precious Lord" evokes the historic
memory of Martin Luther King's martyrdom so specifically that I found it
a bit distracting. But that may be a response peculiar to me:
certainly it is possible that for the audience as a whole the more-or-less
conscious musical reference to our own struggle with apartheid worked as
one more bridge between Newton and the exotic Karoo.