In a nation seriously wounded by the ignorance of its leaders, it is education that holds South Africa’s hope for the future. This season opener by Wilma Theater makes the case beautifully.
The Wilma Theater opens its season with a supremely enriching production of Athol Fugard’s new play Coming Home .
Home continues the story Fugard began in his 1995 play Valley Song . In Song, a 17-year-old farm girl named Veronica is preparing to leave her grandfather’s home to find fame and fortune as a singer in Cape Town. Veronica’s youthful optimism is symbolic of the hopes of South Africa in the heady days following apartheid.
In Home, it’s more than a decade later and Veronica (Patrice Johnson) has returned to the small village where she was raised. Her dreams have not only gone unrealized, they’ve become a nightmare.
Accompanied by her young son (ably portrayed at different ages by Elijah Felder and Antonio J. Dandridge), Veronica finds employment as a maid with the help of her friend Alfred (Nyambi Nyambi). Life is hard, but it’s a vast improvement over her years in Cape Town, which she describes as a place made by the “devil.” There, broke and disillusioned, she contracted HIV and her life quickly unraveled.
Fugard takes his time in developing the story, yet the play is never slow or dull. Featuring extraordinarily well-crafted characters, we become fully immersed in their lives, thanks in part to strong performances from the excellent cast. Veronica could be little more than the typical courageous woman in a man’s world, but in a searing performance, Johnson unearths not only Veronica’s heart, but also her nearly unbearable sense of guilt. Nyambi is equally good, effectively communicating Alfred’s own disappointments and his devotion to Veronica.
Director Blanka Zizka isn’t heavy handed in her leadership of this play. She coaxes and caresses the story forward with a marvelously fluid, almost magical production that fully embraces the play’s lyricism. A huge assist is provided by lighting designer Thom Weaver whose expressive lighting is so soft it often appears that the stage is bathed in candlelight. Composer/musician Mogauwane Mahloele adds to the effect with music that is heartbreakingly soulful.
Unlike the optimistic Valley Song , in Home something has gone horribly wrong in South Africa. President Thabo Mbeki and his government responded to the AIDS epidemic not with medicine (which exists but is absurdly expensive) but rather with the recommendation that those afflicted eat bananas. The result: Nearly a quarter of all South Africans have become stricken with the virus.
Yet while Fugard recognizes the nation’s profound hardships, the play is far from depressing. Rich in metaphors, hope is embodied in Veronica’s young son Mannetjie. Excited about learning, Mannetjie keeps his “special words” in a tin can that previously contained the seeds for the family crops. In a nation seriously wounded by the ignorance of its leaders, it is education that holds South Africa’s hope for the future. ■