Review: Valley Song, Gateway Theatre until February 21

Until February 21, at Gateway Theatre:

In Valley Song, old Buks (nicknamed Buks, with a full name of Abraam Jonkers) tells the prospective new landowner as he gifts him with a cartful of luscious vegetables and fruit, something like, “The earth is a woman, and us old men, we know how to keep her happy.” At church, the verse is quoted:”The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” The play opens with the narrator bringing us into the world of the South African Karoo, so we can feel the rain and see the flowers and smell the earth.

Like “Mies Julie”, which I reviewed last year, Valley Song is about human attachment and connection to land, in both plays, South Africa’s Karoo region. What does it mean for people to be attached to land? I’ve had several people tell me of their intense longing to their home of New Orleans–how if they leave, they absolutely have to come back. I know from my relatives how attached they are to the ancestral family farm. And, of course, the intrinsic attachment of Aboriginal people to their land is undeniable. Think of the Christian creation story–Adam is formed from the soil. Some Aboriginal creation stories involve creation of humans from mud. This intensity of connection is not something that I feel myself, rootless as I might be, but I have certainly heard enough people express it. The connection that Buks has is all the more poignant because he cannot dream of legal ownership, as he simply lacks the funds, even if the end of apartheid has made land ownership by anyone of any race legally possible. A white man with some spare cash can come from a city far away and buy the land and kick off its current inhabitants, including a family that has been there for hundreds of years. Buks is desperate to prevent that displacement from the land he loves.

But this connection to land is in tension with another undeniable human feeling, which is the need to explore, to move onwards, to progress. As the grandfather, Buks is thus in conflict with his granddaughter Veronica, who cannot bear the thought of being a servant to white people like all of her ancestors in living memory, and who wants to explore a singing career and achieve wealth and fame in Johannesburg.

David Adams, with some changes in clothing and lighting and accent, plays several male characters, both white and “coloured” (“coloured” being the term used in pre-apartheid and apartheid South Africa for people of acknowledged multi-racial ancestry, and the term that the Jonkers characters refer to themselves by). Sereana Malani is lovely, with a wonderful voice, and plays the role of Veronica adroitly and empathetically.

There’s no solution to this tension between rootedness and aspiration. Grandfather and granddaughter must seek to bridge the gap however they can. I am very interested in multilingual theatre and I enjoyed how this play brought Afrikaans terminology (explained in the program) and Afrikaans songs into the performance. While Buks is a loving, gentle soul, the play also explores how he also has some traits of a classic repressive Afrikaaner patriarch (although himself oppressed, he’s taken on some cultural traits of the oppressor).* Veronica is not only a sweet innocent, but someone who schemes and plans to get herself a better life. The playwright Athol Fugard, born in 1932, demonstrates his deep feeling for his homeland and its peoples with this play.

* This is seen in Buks’ insistence that he is the one who controls the household and his word rules. Google will tell you more sadly real stories of the results of Afrikaaner patriarchy within families.

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