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Athol Fugard's Homey 'Song' in a Minor Key

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 1997; Page C05

Playwright Athol Fugard's integrity, political courage and sheer decency are so well known and rightly praised that it's disappointing to have to say that his latest play, "Valley Song" -- which opened last night at the Kennedy Center -- is agreeable but slight. The story of a man who must come to terms with his granddaughter's desire to control her own life, it never transcends its sweet, small personal story to become a political play -- though Fugard tries very hard to push it there by playing a character based on himself (coyly called the Author), self-described as a "white ghost" of the apartheid-bound past.

Young Veronica (LisaGay Hamilton) is the ward of her grandfather Buks (also Fugard), who has taken care of her since she was a baby. His daughter, Veronica's mother, ran away from home and then died, so Buks is overprotective toward Veronica. When he finds out she wishes to go to Johannesburg and become a singer, he forbids it, and the girl, formerly full of music, stops singing. The Author is a minor character who warns Veronica of the dangers of big dreams, yet also encourages her.

Buks and his granddaughter are "Colored" -- the South African term for mixed-race -- and his life experiences, while not brutal, have taught him caution. But he has not passed this caution on to Veronica, who is ready to discover the world. The play suggests that Buks represents apartheid-era sentiments and Veronica post-apartheid opportunity, but this is never worked out very convincingly. Their generational war seems like the usual fight between the controlling old and the freedom-seeking young that takes place everywhere in all times. Possibly Fugard means for the audience to understand that Veronica is not automatically doomed, as her mother was, but this is far from clear.

As an actor, Fugard is as straightforward, skilled and likable as he is as a writer. Hamilton is an eager Veronica, so full of life she seems about to burst. They play well and affectionately together but still leave you with the sense that this long one-act -- 1 hour 45 minutes -- would be more effective if it were shorter.

Valley Song, by Athol Fugard. Directed by Athol Fugard. Set and costumes by Susan Hilferty. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through May 25. Call 202-467-4600.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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