Athol Fugard’s play “Valley Song”—set in post-Apartheid South Africa—is as simple a story as it is profound. A farmer grandfather wants to keep his loving yet gifted granddaughter at home; she wants to fly away to pursue her dream of singing. The two talented actors in International City Theatre’s (ICT) current production infuse Fugard’s richly drawn characters with poetic life, fully immersing the audience in a timeless emotional story inflected with the racial politics of its setting—making it must-see theatre.
Belle Guillory as the young Veronica is perfectly cast, vanishing into her exuberant character. Her strong yet sweet singing voice captures Veronica’s personality to a T as she negotiates her love for her grandfather with her own burgeoning calling. Guillory’s girlish vocal, facial and physical expressions are delightful in this role, complete with an authentic seeming South African accent.
Complementing her in acting heft is Michael A. Shepperd, alternating between two characters: grandfather Buks, whom Veronica calls Oupa, and a white Author who is a potential landowner in the valley where Buks and Veronica live. Shepperd transitions between his two characters—sometimes morphing from one to the other in same scene—by shifting to a more upright physical carriage and crisper accent when playing the Author and a more aged demeanor as Buks.
Sometimes the shifts are disconcerting because the Author seems to be writing the play as it is performed, describing what Buks and Veronica are doing—such as Buks planting white pumpkin seeds or Veronica dreaming while watching television through a white woman’s window. The Author is also planning to buy the land on which Buks has been a tenant farmer all his life, as was his father.
Buks’s rootedness in the land is indelible so he can’t understand Veronica’s wish to leave, just as he couldn’t understand her mother Caroline’s running away before Veronica was born and dying shortly after the girl’s birth. The loss of Caroline haunts Buks, and by extension Veronica—whom he sometimes mistakes for Caroline—with Buks torturing himself over the question, “What did I do wrong?”
It’s a question Buks monologues with his wife Betty, who has died, as Caroline was their only child. Now with Veronica, Buks has a chance to understand that his unanswerable question may not be the right one to ask, but not before he imposes his will on Veronica’s spirit. Complicating matters is Buks’s bitterness in finding out Veronica has been taking money for her singing from white people—perhaps even the Author—to pay for transport to the city to follow her passion.
Imbalanced race relations, even post-Apartheid, thus cast a pall over Buks’s and Veronica’s lives, potentially threatening Buks’s ability to farm if the Author won’t allow it and making Buks question the integrity of Veronica’s dream of selling her singing rather than keeping it at home and in church. The Author’s amused interest in Veronica—whether as the writer of her story or just a white man interested in buying her home—is admittedly a little creepy. But his seeming control over the narrative of Buks’s and Veronica’s lives is even more unsettling, and perhaps that is part of Fugard’s purpose.
Toward the end, the Author makes assuaging human gestures to both Veronica and Buks, but it’s hard to shake the sense of his disproportionate power, especially over Buks, whose worldview is at least partially the product of Apartheid.
ICT’s production of “Valley Song” paints these shades of familial, political and economic relationships subtly, with an earthy set design by Yuri Okahana-Benson—Buks and Veronica’s home like a little house on the prairie—plus textured lighting by Crystal Shomph, incidental music by Didi Kriel and fitting costumes by Kimberly DeShazo, who has Veronica attired in a plaid dress and cardigans of different colors and Buks in work clothes for farming.
Directing such subtlety with a gossamer thread is ICT Artistic Director caryn desai [sic], who invisibly guides these two brilliant actors to fully inhabit their characters, allowing us to be deeply moved by Fugard’s poignant story. Though “Valley Song” takes place a world away, you will dab your eyes in recognition, so bring a tissue.
International City Theatre’s “Valley Song” continues through Sept. 11 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $52 and can be purchased by calling (562) 436-4610 or visiting ICTLongBeach.org. Proof of vaccination and masks are required. Run time is 100 minutes with no intermission.