at the Diller Street Theatre
By Justin Hayford
If Athol Fugard didn't exist, to paraphrase Voltaire, it would be necessary to invent him. Western theater needed a clear voice to help sort out the muck as the leaders of South Africa's National Party sank their country into a cesspool of hatred, intolerance, and militarism. Fugard fit the bill. His plays are perfectly straightforward: the problems are unambiguous, and an audience rarely needs to wonder where its sympathies should lie. For a country like ours, with its own shameful legacy of racial injustice, Fugard's velvet-gloved theatricality goes down easy, like Pepto-Bismol soothing our national dyspepsia. Fugard doesn't challenge half so much as he reassures.
Over the past three decades Fugard has distilled the many pathologies corrupting his countrymen's souls in accessible plays plotted out in simple, even schematic form. He rarely resists the temptation to haul out a transparent metaphor--the houseful of candles and mirrors that lights up the reclusive Miss Helen's life in The Road to Mecca, for example. And if you wait long enough, one of the characters is bound to explain its significance. "Darkness...nearly smothered my life," Miss Helen laments, finding in her infinitely reflected candles "such brave little lights! And they taught the little girl how to be that. When she saw one burning in the middle of the night, she knew what courage was." At times it seems Fugard isn't writing plays but offering lecture-demonstrations.
At the same time his elemental, intentionally naive style can achieve a kind of archetypal resonance. Fugard wants to capture essences--the optimistic youth, the downtrodden dreamer, the old sage. His characters, like those of the equally schematic and naive August Wilson, speak with an effusive candor (in Fugard's published scripts, they often speak in paragraphs) that renders them more emblematic than idiosyncratic. And like Wilson, Fugard seems more interested in declaration than drama: his characters tend to explain why they do what they do at nearly every step, needing only the slightest prompting to pour out a half dozen misty-memory or tortured-soul monologues to anyone within earshot. At his best (Master Harold...and the Boys), Fugard exposes the intricacies of interracial power relations in deft, bold strokes. At his worst (My Africa! My Children!), he writes with all the subtlety and sophistication of an ABC after-school special.
Of course, artists living in a police state may not imagine subtlety to be a useful tool--although Anouilh and Camus provide definitive evidence to the contrary. It's tempting to theorize that Fugard's theatrical bluntness is a by-product of his position as a Respected Voice of Protest. But Valley Song, his first postapartheid play, proves that theory to be unfounded. This simple, intermissionless piece tells the story of Veronica, a 17-year-old black South African desperate to leave her tiny Karoo village to find fame and fortune as a singer in the big city, and her aged grandfather Buks, who's equally desperate to hold his nearly decimated family together at the expense of a young girl's dreams. Northlight may try to euphemize Valley Song in press materials as Fugard's "gentlest play," but in actuality it's his most diagrammatic and therefore most inert work.
Everything is spelled out. We gather that Veronica wants to become a singer because she tells her grandfather, "I'm Veronica Jonkers and I want to sing!" She also tells him that she's restless in her village because it's "always just the same story. Nothing happens here." Then she sings him her new song: "Railway Bus O Railway Bus / I want to get on board / I want to see Big Cities / And strange places / Far, far away." Later she speaks directly to the audience, telling us how she sneaks out of her grandfather's house after dark, stands atop an apple crate outside the window of a neighbor's house, and watches famous singers on the neighbor's television. In the first of several big traumatic scenes with Buks, she pleads with him not to force her into a job as a domestic because she's got "other ideas." Then she delivers a soliloquy about how much she hates her family home because it holds her and her grandfather captive. And on it goes.
In essence, Fugard reiterates his central conflict a dozen times in needlessly explicit terms rather than let complications develop. The characters have almost nothing to do except stand around and worry, a fact reflected in Russell Vandenbroucke's Northlight staging: stand up, say a few things, take a few steps, say a few more things, sit down, say something else, repeat. Fugard seems content to describe a situation rather than dramatize it. When the neighbor who owns the television dies, for example, we find out that someone named Sophie Jacobs found the woman lying on the kitchen floor with a glass of whiskey in her hand, thought it was a heart attack, and called an ambulance, which arrived too late to save her. None of this information matters a whit to the drama. The neighbor could just as easily have been stung to death by killer bees or eaten by rabid wild dogs. Her death matters only insofar as it complicates Veronica's progression through the play. But since Fugard gives Veronica about six emotional inches to travel in an hour and a half, the death can have little impact. Such decorative descriptions do little but make a thin play seem full.
Fugard introduces a third character, the Author, as a grandfatherly narrator and thinly veiled representative of the playwright. He has a nasty habit of stopping the play cold whenever a critical dramatic scene is imminent. At one point Buks lashes out at his granddaughter's insolence and ignorance of history (she calls all domestics, including her mother and grandmother, "useless coloreds"). This scene should set up a pivotal moment, perhaps an important shift in the characters' relationship--they might just cross a line over which there's no return and give the play some serious stakes. Instead the Author, played by the same actor who plays Buks, steps out of scene and explains the setup for the next scene. Rather than letting his characters head into unpredictable territory, where the dynamics between them might change and something might happen, Fugard opts for more explication.
The minor miracle of Northlight's production is its genuine emotional volatility. Vandenbroucke may have spent little time on blocking, but he's clearly poured his heart into everything else, getting his actors to a place of utter vulnerability and guilelessness that's essential to Fugard's relentlessly direct dialogue. As the Author and Buks, Tony Mockus delivers a thoughtful, rich performance, never straining but finding whatever resonance the play's tired metaphors can offer. As Veronica, Crystal Barnes lays on the spunkiness a bit thick at times: her primary relationship is with her physicality rather than Buks or the audience. But her youthful exuberance is disarmingly genuine, making her character's rather generic predicament surprisingly moving.
As a protest playwright Fugard filled a necessary social role for many years (a role for which a more demanding South African playwright like Anthony Akerman might have been better suited). With the demise of apartheid, that role has been all but eliminated. Whether Fugard will remain a critical theatrical presence remains to be seen. Valley Song would suggest not.