Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, September 9, 1999

Valley Song off key

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Racism. Loss of a loved one. Corruption of innocence. Heart-breaking injustice. All are things that should fuel passionate emotions, but Army Community Theatre's Readers Theatre production of "Valley Song" seems to hum when it should roar.

Is playwright Athol Fugard or the ACT cast more responsible for the surprising lack of passion in this tale of life, tradition, loss, change and racism in mid-20th century South Africa?

The valley is somewhere in rural South Africa. The time is somewhere between the restoration of Boer rule in the late '40s and the end of white minority rule in the '90s. The apartheid system divides the population into four racial categories: White, black, Asian and "coloured" (mixed race). Most of the "coloureds" are of mixed black and white ancestry; the playwright/narrator explains that the coloured characters in this story speak Afrikaans, the language of the white Boers who have lived in South Africa for almost 400 years.


Bullet Valley Song
Bullet Where: Army Community Theatre
Bullet When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 19.
Bullet Tickets: $12 and $15 for adults, keiki $6 and $8.
Bullet Call: 438-4480 or 438-5230

The story could just as easily be set in the American south where apartheid-style race laws similarly limited social and economic opportunities for African-Americans of all complexions until the late '60s.

Buks (Russell Goode) is a coloured farmer who tills a small plot of land on the outskirts of a small village. His only relative is his granddaughter, Veronica (Tara Hunt). We learn that Buks' wife, Betty, died sometime ago, and that their daughter, Caroline, ran away with a ne'er do well and died in Johannesburg. Playwright Fugard doesn't provide specifics but we learn that Betty reached the hospital too late to see Caroline and returned home with the infant Veronica.

Veronica is now a young woman with dreams of leaving the village and pursuing a career as a singer in Johannesburg.

Buks only gradually learns of Veronica's plans but is already facing another crisis. A white person is showing interest in the land he had tilled all these years. The man who gave Buks permission to use a few acres of the property is long-dead, and Afrikaner law provides Buks with no legal claim to the land. A new owner would be able to order him to leave.

The prospective buyer turns out to be the playwright. This particular playwright/narrator has grown tired of commercial success in the city and wants to get back in touch with the earth by buying a farm.

"Valley Song" opens the second season of readers theatre at ACT -- a genre in which the cast performs seated and has copies of the script in front of them. Comings and goings are generally represented by turning away from the audience. Readers theatre concept is a great way to further enrich the local scene, but this production doesn't have the intensity that made "Ladies At The Alamo" and "Agnes Of God" such memorable experiences last season.

Hunt is instantly engaging and adds a singing beautiful voice to the role. She illuminates key facets of the character -- Veronica's desire to please her grandfather, her dreams of becoming a superstar, her determination to be more than some white family's housemaid.

Goode in contrast is extremely solid and stolid. Buks is facing the loss of the two things he loves most -- the land he has spent his life working, and his beloved granddaughter. He has spent his life trying to be a good man. Now he wonders if it has all been for nothing and wrestles with two immense questions: What must I do to be a good man? What did I do wrong (to have things turn out like this)?

Goode underplays the role more than he should in portraying such tumult. A man fighting to prevent his only granddaughter from falling into such a virulent den of iniquity as Johannesburg would surely show more emotion.

Another problematic element is the presence of Jo Pruden in the double role of narrator/playwright. There's no reason why the playwright/narrator has to be male (although Fugard is). However it is confusing to hear Pruden addressed as "massa," and likewise hard to tell if some of the conversations are taking place between Veronica and the playwright/farm buyer or Veronica and the omnipotent playwright/narrator.

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