Athol Fugard is the grand old man of South Africa's theater: He started in the '50s with underground plays that snubbed the apartheid regime by casting black and white actors on the same stage. Valley Song might be the capstone of his career, his only major work (so far) since Nelson Mandela took power, and probably his most optimistic. It doesn't deal with the unofficial miseries that plague South Africa now -- poverty, crime, racial resentment -- but instead does a little emotional profit-taking, a reasonable thing for a man who's invested his life in fighting apartheid. It tells the story of Buks, a colored -- "mixed race," in the country's overspecific racial classification system -- tenant farmer, and his precocious granddaughter. They live on property in a backward desert village; the play is about how each reacts when a white "Author" turns up from the city to buy the land. The Author, baldly, is Fugard himself (who does own land in the Karroo desert), and the script stipulates that whoever plays him should also play Buks. Fugard played both characters a few years ago in New York; but the Berkeley Rep-sponsored performance on now at the Lorraine Hansberry is the first to feature a black man (Paul Butler) in these two roles, and the results are shimmering.
The granddaughter, Veronica, likes to sing. She dreams about moving to Johannesburg; and at night, after Buks thinks she's gone to bed, she visits the window of an old lady in the village where she can watch a flickering television. But Buks' idea of her future is a lot like his own past: He thinks she should stay and work in the house as a servant. Buks knows how to farm the desert and presents the Author with a wheelbarrow of vegetables as a peace offering, in exchange for being allowed to stay on the land. Veronica considers this kind of behavior Uncle Tom-ish. Working for a white man, even a kindly one, is not her idea of a future. In this sense Valley Song might resonate more in America now than any other part of Fugard's canon, because South Africa is just starting to experience what America went through during the '60s; so the decision to cast Butler in the Author/Buks role has a political shudder.
Anika Noni Rose plays a vivid, natural, and charming Veronica: She's mastered her Afrikaner accent and she knows how to sing. Butler balances her well with an earthy stage presence, not distinguishing his two roles as much as he could but still powerful in Buks' angry speeches to Veronica. When he forces her to sing in church, imposing his old religion on her, Veronica says, "You've killed the song in me," and she gives an eloquent speech that compares her own singing to the vegetables he cultivates in the soil. The script sometimes gets effusive and soft, but the whole effect is a brightly realized show from one of the world's greatest living writers.
-- Michael Scott Moore
"FoFest, Celebrating Dario & Franca." Directed by Daniel Chumley. Starring Sharon Lockwood, Joe Bellan, Joan Mankin, Ed Holmes, Anna Maria Belleza, and others. At the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, April 20. For other FoFest events call 263-0995 or visit www.infinex.com/~berny/fofest.html.
A friend tells me that in Europe Dario Fo tends to be discovered and played by kids in high school, the way Beckett and Ionesco are discovered here, partly because his scripts are "superficially" easy to play -- they have simple surface rewards. This is probably true. The most wooden-voiced bureaucrat could read selected parts of Fo's About Face and draw a laugh at a funeral. Fo is the Italian anti-capitalist who shocked everyone from the pope to (the New Yorker's) John Lahr by winning the 1997 Nobel Prize for literature; the story goes that someone notified him about the prize on a highway in Europe with a hand-lettered sign held up in a car window: "Dario, you have won the Nobel." But America has ignored him. Outside the Bay Area his plays have been failures.
Within the Bay Area, though, he's earned a devoted following, starting with a 1979 production of We Can't Pay! We Won't Pay! by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The current "FoFest" is a smattering of events in April and May that pay tribute to Fo and his wife Franca Rame, who has collaborated on most of his work since the '70s; last week a collection of "Scenes From the Great Bay Area Fo Productions" was staged at the Cowell Theater. It was uproarious. We Can't Pay! We Won't Pay! is about housewives looting a supermarket, an actual form of protest in Italy. Maria, who wants to keep stolen groceries from Antonia's husband, hides the shopping bags under her coat, making her look pregnant. Farce ensues, culminating in a jar of olives cracking and spilling brine on the floor, which convinces the men that her water has broken. Fo has been devoted to the "class war" for 30 years, but he jeers at his targets obliquely, from an energetic sense of injustice, rather than subordinating his clownishness to a dogmatic party line.
About Face showed a woman trying to feed her husband, a worker at Fiat; he looks exactly like the president of Fiat, who, for some reason I didn't catch, visits her kitchen. The president can't swallow: He takes liquid through a funnel in his neck, and food through a meat grinder that sits on his head and sends mush through tubes into his nostrils. Rosa, the housewife, confuses the men, and the fact that the meal on offer is pig's-trotter soup makes things twice as disgusting.
Three other highlights were Michael Gene Sullivan's performance as the madman in a scene from Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Joan Mankin as A Woman Alone, and Ed Holmes as Pope Boniface VIII in Mistero Buffo. Here the pope gets into his panoply of robes and rings and confronts, unexpectedly, a barefoot Christ. The way he rejects the actual son of God has not only brought down the wrath of the Catholic Church on Fo and the people who produce him (including the ACT in 1994), but also recalls the disturbing fact that more than one strange man in recent years has stormed the Vatican, claiming to be Christ, and earning for his trouble a seat in a Roman jail.
-- Michael Scott Moore