NEW HAVEN — In 1995, a year after Nelson Mandela was elected president of a new, post-Apartheid South Africa, Athol Fugard wrote Valley Song, the tale of a talented young singer-song-writer, Veronica Jonkers, rebelling against the grandfather who raised her, leaving his small farm in order to pursue her dream in the big city.
The play was both Veronica’s hopeful story, and also a portrait of a country in search of its authentic identity as it emerged from the half-century of brutal racial discrimination and repression.
Coming Home, Fugard’s latest play, currently receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, is the painful sequel to Valley Son. As it traces Veronica’s life ten years later, it is as much a commentary on the terrible problems that beset South Africa today: overcrowded shanty towns, a failing educational system, high unemployment, and worst of all, an AIDS epidemic so rampant that nearly one in five South Africans is infected with HIV.
If home is the place where they always have to take you in, Eugene Lee’s somberly beautiful set — depicting the shabby interior of the farmhouse, the village behind it, dominated by a rusting windmill, and the patch of dirt in front — captures at once the disheartening world Veronica escaped from, and also the comfort of memory.
Oupa (Grandfather) Jonkers is dead now, and the farm is abandoned, but the play opens with a young mother and her small son trudging down the road, lugging the suitcases and bundles which make up their worldly possessions. She leads him into the room and exclaims “Here we are! This is where your mommy grew up. This is where we are going to live.”
Veronica races around the room with a manic fervor. Yes it looks bad now, she tells her little boy, Mannetjie, but we will fix it up. We’ll paint the walls, hang pictures cut from magazines. I’ll sew new curtains to section off your room- the very one I slept in when I was your age. You’ll go to school. We’ll be happy here!
Almost immediately there is a banging on the door. It is Alfred Witbooi, a simple-minded child-man who used to work for Oupa, bringing back the bedding and kitchen utensils he had hidden after Oupa’s death, to protect them from thieving villagers. He is delighted to see Veronica, who was kind to him when they were children, and who is a bridge to his devotion to Oupa.
An instantaneous scene change transforms the room to the exact vision Veronica had promised, but there is another ominous change as well. It is a year later, and she moves more awkwardly. She coughs; she is clearly not well.
Between advance publicity and the notes in the playbill, the audience recognizes what is coming, and why Veronica chose to come back to Nieu Bethesda. The virus has taken hold, and in a country where government denial of the epidemic and the lack of money for medicines makes AIDS a death sentence, she has come home to die.
More than that, however, she has come home to save her son, by giving him access to an education that will enable him to escape and realize dreams more successfully than she was able to do. The time of the play spans five years, with Veronica holding out as long as she can, through sheer will power and love.
Like his mother before him, Mannetjie is a very bright youngster who makes perfect grades in school and becomes the teacher’s pet. Her goal is for him to keep this up long enough to earn a scholarship to a decent high school, that will in turn lead him on to university, and escape from poverty and destitution.
Beyond that, as she explains to the well-meaning but astounded Alfred, she has further plans to insure her son’s security, even after she dies…
Athol Fugard is one of the greatest playwrights in the world. As a white man who has chronicled the racial struggles of his homeland for nearly fifty years, he portrays his characters with empathy and sensitivity, while building up dramatic tension. This production is enhanced by wonderful acting as well.
In the role of Alfred, Colman Domingo manages the difficult task of portraying someone who is mentally challenged, while investing him with both dignity and decency that transcend his limitations.
Mel Eichler has stepped from his classroom in a New Haven middle school to invest the part of Mannetjie with luminous sweetness, mixed with stubborn resentment, anxiety, and a bubbling enthusiasm for learning. (In the first scene, kindergartener Namunba Santos plays Mannetjie as a five-year-old)
As Veronica, Roslyn Ruff changes before our eyes from a spirited young woman to a dying wreck.
The final member of the cast is Lou Ferguson, who appears periodically as the ghost — or rather the memory — of Oupa, whose faith in the pumpkin seeds he plants in the tenuous soil becomes a symbol for Veronica’s faith in the seeds of words and ideas being planted in her son’s fertile mind.
This is a sad play about terrible waste, but it is yet hopeful. The initial dream of the new South Africa contained in Valley Song has fallen victim to the socio-economic forces that continue to beset the struggling country. Yet Fugard, now in his seventies, a friend of Mandela and a long time activist in the war against Apartheid, still has hope for what can be.
While the first act is a bit long, until you understand what is happening, the play builds incrementally and powerfully to the point where the entire audience is transfixed. The standing ovation was well deserved, and this is one more play by Athol Fugard that is well worth seeing. Good for Long Wharf for luring him away from Yale.
For those who are planning on heading to New Haven this weekend to catch one of the final performances of Coming Home, you may want to take note that Long Wharf Theatre has been holding a food drive during the production to benefit AIDS Project New Haven. The group’s food pantry is currently experiencing a shortage of many necessities, and theater staff and patrons have the opportunity to offer a contribution that may make a difference for many families.
Donations will be collected in the Mainstage lobby through February 8. They can be dropped off prior to any performance.
Suggested items for donation include canned protein items (tuna, chicken, chili, beans, beef stew and chunky soups), canned fruits and vegetables, packaged items (cereal, nonfat dry milk, oatmeal, trail mix, granola, ramen noodles, stuffing mixes, and condiments such as salad dressings, gravy and mayo). Low-salt, healthy varieties are encouraged.
(Performances continue Tuesday through Sunday evenings, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, until February 8.
Call 203-787-4282 or visit LongWharf.org for curtain and ticket details as well and special programming information.)