As many people know (though far too few from personal experience), this historic boulevard is being reclaimed. Zeitgeist, Barrister's Gallery and the Ashé Cultural Center have now been joined by The Neighborhood Gallery and Theatre, the sprightly brainchild of Sandra Berry and Joshua Walker.
As its inaugural production, the theater is presenting Valley Song by celebrated South African writer Athol Fugard. The play is set in the post-apartheid 1990s and, like most of Fugol's work, manages to capture the broader struggles of its time and place while never losing its intense, lyrical focus on the lives of a small group of fascinating individuals.
Valley Song concerns the struggles of Veronica (Fahnlohnee Harris), a teenage black girl from a small country village, to realize her dream of becoming a singer. The conflict centers not so much on the difficulties that await her in the big city -- for she is a fearless and optimistic soul -- but her deep attachment to her grandfather, Buks, who raised her and who cannot bear the prospect of losing her. Buks is a widower. His beautiful, spirited grandchild cooks for him, minds the house and brings joy to his life. But his resistance to her leaving has a darker source. His own daughter ran away to the big city, leaving him and his wife with dreadful anxiety and guilt (what had they done wrong?). Finally, a call came from a hospital. Buk's wife took a bus to the city to retrieve the daughter. But she returned instead with the daughter's newborn baby, Veronica -- for the daughter was already dead.
The story is simple, with those complex layers of meaning that characterize true simplicity (as opposed to minimalism). And the new storefront theater, as appealing as it is, certainly does not allow for extraneous effects. A huge, gorgeous backdrop of the Transvaal (by Michelle Levine) points up the artifice of the play in a pleasing and unexpected way. "This is nothing but make-believe," it seems to be saying. "Come along with us, while we act out a story for you."
Playwright Fugard apparently had this sort of attitude in mind, for he pointedly insists that a white actor shall play the part of "Buks" and that the same actor shall double as the play's third character, a white author who buys an old house in the village as a refuge. Unwittingly, he also buys the few acres of farm land that was unofficially willed to Buks by the former owner.
One of the recurring themes in the play is the "miracle" of life -- stubborn, unthinking, inexplicable as a handful of pumpkin seeds. Veronica herself embodies this miracle. And one of the many joys of this small, poignant show is the small miracle of a performance by Fahnlohnee Harris. It is a performance lit from within. There is a certain kind of appealing, enthusiastic naivete that almost never works on stage, and God help the actor who attempts a role that calls for it. Harris (who has succeeded in many more worldly roles) somehow finds this dimension in herself. We believe her every moment and are as entranced as her poor old grandpa.
Bert Pigg gives us a nuanced, complicated Buks. He is a "simple" man -- once again, in that satisfying, profound sense of simplicity. The interplay between Buks and his granddaughter is not only touching, but shows the salutary side of traditional life that is endangered by the irresistible potentials of new freedom. The nostalgic author (who buys the old house) admires Veronica, but -- for his own personal reasons -- both fears for her and envies her. He is painfully aware of the downside of all change, even change for the better. And in some ways, the play is about the difficulty of accepting change.
I have to admit, although I'm sure there are points to be made by having one white actor play both male parts -- and certainly, Bert Pigg does an excellent job with them -- I would have preferred a second male actor, an older black actor, as the grandfather. I found myself a bit distracted for the first half of the play trying to grasp quite what was going on. Reality, I think, would have improved on artifice. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I was truly moved by the story.
Valley Song is the first play in New Orleans directed by recent arrival Jimmy Walker. Auspicious beginnings all the way 'round.