Athol Fugard's Valley Song premiered in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August, 1995. The playwright himself directed the production and played two of the play's three characters: The Author, a figure modeled on Fugard himself, and Abraam Jonkers, the elderly “coloured” farmer who represents the “old” South Africa. Fugard repeated this theatrical tour de force when the play reached America, in a production by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, in October, 1995. Both performances were warmly received by audiences and critics, several of whom expressed gratitude that Fugard was still writing intense, meaningful dramas about the lives of ordinary South Africans, even in the post-apartheid era.
Since the playwright had built his career over four decades of writing about the injustices of apartheid and state-mandated racial segregation, there was some concern when apartheid officially ended in 1992, and Nelson Mandela, a black leader, was elected president in 1994, that Fugard may have run out of things to say. However, as Jack Barbera observed in the Nation, “Valley Song is as timeless as it is timely, a story of the old fearful of change and the young with their hopes and impatience, and of a teller of stories.”
Like most of Fugard's plays, the plot of Valley Song is quite simple, and less important than the secrets it reveals about its characters are the themes it presents its audience. The play contains two stories woven into one. In the first, a young, black South African girl decides to leave her elderly grandfather behind on their farm in the Sneeuberg Valley so she can escape to the city and pursue her dreams of becoming a famous singer. The other story concerns an aging white South African playwright who is prepared to leave behind the “artificial” world of the theater and urban life and move himself back to his origins in the farmland of the Karoo. His days of planning and dreaming about the “Glorious Future” are nearing an end just as the young girl's are beginning, and Valley Song is really the tale of the torch of hope passing from one generation to the next—a bold and magnificent gesture by a man whom many critics have dubbed one of the greatest living English-language playwrights.
Valley Song opens with The Author, a white man in his sixties representing Fugard himself, showing the audience a handful of ‘‘genuine Karoo pumpkin seeds,’’ describing the beauty and richness of the land in the Sneeuberg Mountains of South Africa's great Karoo region, and inviting the onlookers to imagine Abraam Jonkers, a ‘‘coloured’’ (mixed-race) tenant farmer now in his seventies, planting the seeds in the fresh spring earth just after a rain. The images in The Author's opening monologue—seeds, earth, rain, mountains, and valleys—are important not only to the setting of Valley Song, but to the personalities of the characters and the larger themes at work in the play.
As The Author talks, he turns into Abraam Jonkers, known to everyone in the village of Nieu-Bethesda as ‘‘old Buks.’’ Old Buks has lived in the village his entire life, working as a tenant farmer on the same piece of land his father worked on when he was a boy. While the land has been owned by a white family, the Landmans, for generations, Abraam Jonkers and his family have only been allowed to live on the edge of it and farm a few acres. Old Buks has raised the crops for the Landmans, and his wife, before she died, cleaned their house and scrubbed their floors. Now the Landmans are gone, and the property is for sale.
As Buks sings fragments of an old song he once knew and plants pumpkin seeds in the damp soil, his granddaughter, Veronica, arrives with his lunch. She is black, seventeen, filled with youthful energy and tender devotion toward her grandfather, whom she calls ‘‘Oupa.’’ As Veronica lays out their lunch—bread with jam and a thermos of tea—Buks tells her he is concerned about a white man who visited that morning looking to buy the house and property. Because Buks does not own the land on which he lives and farms, the owner could tell him to leave, a fate worse than death for the old man. Veronica does not want to see her Oupa displaced, but losing the land, to her, might mean opportunity instead of tragedy. She complains that nothing ever happens in the small valley village, and what she is really seeking now is ‘‘Adventure and Romance!’’
More than anything, Veronica wants to be a famous singer. She has a lovely natural voice, and constantly makes up songs to sing to entertain herself and old Buks. She sings him a song she made up that morning called ‘‘Railway Bus O Railway Bus,’’ which is about her desire to jump on a fast bus and travel the world, seeing all of the big cities and strange places she has only heard about. The song reminds old Buks of painful memories and prompts him to finally tell Veronica about her mother and her past.
Veronica's mother, Caroline, was Buks' only daughter. When she was still a young girl, she ran away to Johannesburg with her troublemaking boyfriend. A year went by before Buks and his wife, Betty, received a phone call from a hospital in the city. Caroline was quite sick, so Betty went to be with her. When she returned on the ‘‘railway bus’’ she brought Veronica, a newborn baby. Caroline had died. Old Buks and Betty raised Veronica, their granddaughter, as if she were their own child. Now Buks' life is changing. Betty died when Veronica was only a few years old, and now, it seems, Veronica wants to run away to the city like her mother did before her. To make matters worse, a white man is asking questions about his land, and he faces an uncertain future.
Later that night, Veronica sneaks off to the village. She is standing on an apple box, pretending she is on TV singing for thousands of people, when The Author steps out of the shadows and surprises her. After an initial fright, Veronica tells The Author about her fantasy of being a famous performer. He warns her about the danger of dreams that are impossible to achieve, but she insists that if people dream ‘‘properly’’ and believe hard enough, they can make a dream come true.
The next day Veronica and old Buks receive the news: the white man they have seen around town is going to buy the land on which they live and farm. Veronica suggests they fight against losing their home,...
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