Tuesday 10 February 2015

Valley Song sings of hope & sweet sorrow

Quick background sketch :  Playwright Athol Fugard is no question a South African scriptwindjie. In his mid-80's now, Fugard has created some three-dozen stage plays across the decades. He acts. He directs. He writes novels. He's big. He's a white of Boer descent. And he never lets himself stray too far from a self-imposed grip of guilt over that fact. 

From his earliest days script-writing in the 60's he assailed South Africa's colonialism -- then its nearly five decades of official apartheid [pron. in English, appropriately, "apart-hate"] -- plus the fact that only 9% of its population are white but control nearly 100% of power, money and wealth. What the late US Christian theologian Marcus Borg termed "the powers that be", Fugard in Afrikaans calls the "groot kokkedorre", the great bigwigs.  

The drift of his earlier anti-apartheid plays can be grasped from their titles : No-Good Friday (1958); The Blood Knot (1961); Sizwe Bonsi Is Dead (1972); Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act (1972), My Children! My Africa! (1989). As a result of his impudence and daring, he was under regular surveillance by the Buro vir Staatsveiligheid, the secret police -- the S.A. stasi to whom Western journalists applied the easy acronym of "BOSS" -- and regularly had to produce his plays abroad to avoid detention and imprisonment.

Post-Robben Island : the Mandela years :  Once Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress achieved power in 1994, Fugard stopped writing polemics so much and concentrated more on "personal memoir" type plays. Valley Song fits neatly into that category. Because in it but for a few references to "white" and "master", there are virtually no political out-takes whatever. One would hardly know his setting in the Great Karoo from rural Ireland or England or India. Dirt-farmers, peasants, feudal serfs wherever they were stuck were still what and where they always have been : stuck. But some of them at least seem to have developed a love, almost a lust, for the fecundity of Mother Earth despite, or perhaps even because of, their modest circumstances. Such is what Fugard suggests in VS. 

Plot overview : Old -vs- new. Generational conflict. Tradition -vs- progress. Life working dirt -vs- life in the lights. Traditional tropes, these, that are engagingly portrayed in VS. We find Abraam Jonkers, a.k.a. Opa (David Adams), who struggles to keep granddaughter Veronica (Sereana Malani) in his local village and not let her pursue a singing career in Jo'berg, where she desperately wants to go. 

There's a third character. "Author". An artificial but workable interjection of a Fugard alter ego playwright into the script, also played by Adams. When Opa, Adams is stoop-ish and slops a knit tocque on his head and speaks Great Karoo Afrikaans vernacular. When Author, he's military erect and speaks in a crisp private school British mien (at least to my tin ear).

Abraam ("Buks") lost his daughter Caroline twice : first when she ran away from Karoo, and secondly when she died in childbirth bringing Veronica to life. Years back he also lost his wife of 25 years Betty -- whom he talks to "up there" daily. Buks has been raising Veronica on his own since she was a toddler. Buks is proud. He enthuses mightily about his pumpkins and his walnuts and his beetroots and his Sneeuberge arrtappel (potatoes) and his carrots and his onions. To him the re-birth of these earthly fruits each year is a miracle. He worships the Spring rain as if it were holy water.

Veronica is a lyric soul. She was born singing, not crying, Oma reported to Buks when she brought Veronica home after their daughter's death. She sings spontaneously, putting the day's events to song as they happen, and is the joy of Opa's heart. But she has dreams. To be wreathed in shimmering green and trill to adoring crowds instead of taking hand-outs singing pedestrian ditties she's made up to passerby whites in the local town square. 

"I want adoration. I want romance. What is there here for me? I am bored. It's the same old story, nothing happens here," she urges Opa. He flips back "You are talking too fast! I can't understand what you say!" Referring to Mandela's election, Veronica pleads : "Isn't it supposed to be different now?" Opa scoffs : "I don't need other people to give me ideas !" When Opa extols the virtues of dirt and veggies and their earthy nurture as one's proper and fulfilling life work, Veronica explodes : "The ground gives us food but it takes our lives! You plant seeds and I dream dreams!"

"Author" turns out to be the white "master" (Fugard surrogate) who wants to buy the surrounding Lambert estate on which Opa's hardscrabble vegetable plot and rural shack sit. This plot inherited, by promise, from the previous owner and landlord to Buks' dad Jaap. The place is akin to Fugard's actual home in Karoo, Nieu Bethesda which is a wholly "mixed" community, not just white. Like other Bethesda's world-wide, it was named after the Pool of Bethesda in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem. Wiki tells us : "The name of the pool is said to be derived from the Hebrew and/or the Aramaic language, meaning either 'house of mercy' or 'house of grace'." Appropriate landing spot, without a doubt, for a man of Fugard's history and gestalt.

Author acts as the play's narrator cum plot connector, almost a mediator between Veronica and Opa. He warns Veronica : "I don't want you to be hurt by your dreams, the 'Big Dream' that doesn't come true. Dreams don't do well in this valley, pumpkins do." In the end, however, school chum Priscilla from Jo'berg magnetizes Veronica, and Opa relents with his blessing. He confesses : "I'm not as brave about change as I thought I was. I'm trying to hold onto you." Author gives her a rousing round of hand-claps. It has dawned on him that everyone has to do what they do : He himself, Author, plants words. Opa plants seeds. Veronica plants songs. They all sow what they do and they shall all reap what they do, too.

Production values : As Veronica, Sereana Milani peppers her role with quick hand-action and a powerful voice befitting teen-age passion. She is sheer delight to watch and hear. David Adams flips between Opa and Author splendidly, a mix of grandfatherly concern & temper & empathy aside Author's more removed and analytical bearing. While the script yields up mostly predictable lines and conflicts and resolutions, the actors' execution of them is charming.

Not quite enough can be said of Drew Facey's oh-so-clever pumpkin-skid set that rises to the skies as a symbolic appurtenance to the agrarian milieux in which the story occurs, its valley cabins and mountain peaks rising behind. Tres! effective and successful.

Lighting by John Webber was superb. He and Facey were wholly in sync. Flat blues countered by rich oranges and sunrise reds on the mountain-peaks along with spot-on spots on the actors : 1st-rate design and delivery no question.

Who gonna like : Valley Song is a self-conscious and reflective and apparently autobiographical period piece from South Africa in its early post-apartheid moments. One reviewer said it was less play than "tone poem". Hard to argue there. It harkens back to simpler land-husbandry times and values. Urban threats to generations-old learned and inherited lifestyles were just beginning given South Africa's social ostracism political policies pre-President Mandela. 

The poignance of Ms. Malani, particularly, was stunning, even if her role was limited in characterization by virtue of the play's central and basically simple conflict of Gramps -vs- me. Acting students who need to see terrific individual scenes of delivery would learn much as they absorb Malani's intensity and body language even in such a predictable part. 

Thematically, it was apparent the largely white-head matinee crowd appreciated the trip down memory lane and the natural generational conflict they perhaps recalled from their own and their parents' time tilling 1/4-sections from the Canadian Shield to Saskatchewan to the vast Peace River country. "Once they've seen the bright lights of the city, how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?" is an age-old question only slightly dimmed in our i-Pad social media universe.

A well-executed and thoughtful performance for sure, this, though clearly not written with a view toward contemporary Vancouver audiences who never seem to get quite enough of the fizz & sizzle & sass that is their more customary fare. 

Particulars. Produced by The Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond behind Minoru Chapel. At its main stage from February 5-21. For schedules and tickets contact the Box Office @ 604.270.1812 -orwww.gatewaytheatre.com.

Production crew. Written by Athol Fugard.  Directed by Gateway Theatre Artistic Director Jovanni Sy. Assistant Director Katrina Darychuk.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Original Music and Sound Designer Cathy Nosaty.  Stage Manager Lorily Parker.  Assitant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.  Production Properties Jennifer Stewart.  Dialect Coach Brad Gibson.  Publicist Chelsea Isenor.

Actors :  David Adams.  Sereana Malani.


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