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...
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