Tender But Timid

Athol Fugard's Valley Song, at Stages, addresses the struggles of a young black woman who lives in post-apartheid South Africa. Veronica (Melita Hawkins) is barely out of school and full of dreams. She yearns for a life outside her little town of Nieu-Bethesda. In her mind this place is a trap, offering no opportunities other than housekeeping for a white "master." If she were to stay, she would end up like her grandmother, "bowing and scraping" to the white man.

She is the only family left for her grandfather, Abraam (Manning Mpinduzi-Mott). And he doesn't want to let her go. What follows is the young woman's fight to gain her independence.

There is something very tender and universal in this play -- what family doesn't have some young wild-heart who has gone off to make her fortune in faraway lands. However, Fugard's script lacks torque and tension. There doesn't seem to be much at stake. Children grow up and go away. This inevitable step in parenting is painful but necessary. Although Fugard focuses on the fact that Veronica is of the first generation in her family who is permitted to dream, there is nothing in this script that makes Veronica's struggle any different from any other generational fight.

Alex Morris's direction is careful though weirdly cautious, and his charming cast is timid. As Veronica, Hawkins is withholding and too sweetly demure. The character will break her grandfather's heart, hurting the only father she has ever known, to get what she wants. She thoughtlessly implies that her housemaid grandmother was nothing but a "useless colored." She wants to be a singer and performs on the street for the white folks so that she can earn bus fare to the big city. This is a girl with lots of gumption and a fearlessness that Hawkins never quite captures.

Likewise, Mpinduzi-Mott's Abraam is too polite. His rages never get big enough to be scary or in any way unpredictable. It's impossible to see in this grandfather any remnants of the father who long ago drove away his only daughter, Veronica's mother.

This production needs, more than anything, some reckless abandon, the kind that allows a young girl to dream of bright lights and the wicked big city.

-- Lee Williams

Valley Song runs through May 2 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)52-


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