“Valley Song” a Minor, Flawed Meditation on Post-Apartheid South Africa

The Holocaust is Germany’s national shame. For the United States, it’s slavery (and more, but let’s not get into that here). For South Africa, it’s apartheid, the cultural, political, and violent oppression of the Black majority by White minority rule that finally ended in 1994 with the dominance of the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela’s presidential victory in the country’s first free, fair election.

Not surprisingly, Afrikaner artists of conscience born into the Apartheid system that provided them with explicitly codified White privilege have often used their art to wrestle with the sins of their White brethren and to consider how to reconcile their post-Apartheid world.

In Valley Song, Athol Fugard takes dead aim at the issue by stripping it to bare bones. For his entire life Abraam (Michael A. Shepperd) lived and worked a few acres on a white-owned estate. Now a widower in his mid 70s, he lives with his granddaughter Veronica (Belle Guillory), who years to leave the shabby confines of her valley home to pursue a singing career in Johannesburg. Meanwhile, the death of the landowner leaves Abraam at the mercy of the estate’s next buyer, most likely an aging White author (also played by Shepperd) who at least seems like a decent fellow.

The metaphors in Valley Song are simple (the valley is the old South Africa, Johannesburg is the dream of the new), as are the characters (The Author is a stand-in for Fugard himself, right down to the omniscience his character could not otherwise possibly have) and conflicts (Veronica wants to move forward and yet not hurt Abraam; The Author and Abraam are tempted to maintain the status quo despite knowing it’s a devil’s bargain). Perhaps it’s this simplicity that makes Valley Song’s 100 minutes feel too long. Perhaps it’s Fugard’s inefficiency, his tendency to keep hammering after the nail’s driven flush.

Several other things don’t quite work here. Supposedly Veronica is 17, but Guillory plays her — and Fugard writes her — about four years younger, which undermines the credibility of her desire to go her own way. Director caryn desai’s blocking is stilted — particularly problematic when you’ve got only two characters, inherently static situations, and no visual effects whatsoever — and the actors’ responses to each other in the show I saw opening weekend weren’t always in sync. The show’s strongest aspect is how competently Shepperd demarcates Abraam from The Author. It’s not just that the characters have different words and accents, but Shepperd fully shifts his bearing between one and the other.

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While Athol Fugard may not be able deliver the sort of nuanced, knotty post-apartheid Afrikaner meditation we find in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, Valley Song does provide a little something to think on. Unfortunately, International City Theater haven’t found a way to overcome the play’s inherent limitations.

Valley Song at International City Theatre
Time: Thurs-Sat 8:00 pm and Sun 2:00 pm
The show runs through Sept. 11.
Cost: $49-$52
Details: (562) 436-4610 ICTLongBeach.org
Venue: Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

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