LISA GAY HAMILTON'S JOURNEY TO FUGARD
The Playbill cover for Valley Song, the Athol Fugard play that's been brought back by popular demand to the Manhattan Theatre Club bears a photograph of a young woman, Lisa Gay Hamilton, bursting with song, eyes half-shut, fists squeezed, her face radiant with pain, or laughter, or both.
It is, however, an artfully highlighted photograph that doesn't tell you how truly beautiful she is, this 32-year-old from Long Island playing a joyous, barefoot, irrepressible South African "colored" girl of 17 whose 76-year-old grandfather in the original run was portrayed by Valley Song playwright Fugard himself. The Playbill also, like much of the rest of the world, splits her name into three: Lisa Gay Hamilton.
"They won't listen to me," she says with a melting smile. "I've been pushing it together to encourage people to say it that way. My own mother won't do it." Lisa Gay's mother, Tina Hamilton, is assistant executive director of the Suffolk, L.I., office of Girl Scouts of America. So what does she call her daughter? " 'Lisa' or 'Hey!' "
The New York premiere of Valley Song, this past December and January, was on MTC's little Stage II. It's now been graduated, promoted, to the MTC Mainstage. Fugard having gone off to do the London production, the double role of a black grandfather and a white playwright much like Fugard will be in the hands of Marius Weyers. Lisa Gay Hamilton got the part of Veronica the way she got every job in the theatre she's ever had: auditioning. "I have never been given anything," she says matter-of-factly, taking a big healthy bite out of an apple. Looks at apple. "I even bought this myself. . . One day it'll come easy. But I'm not holding my breath for that either."
Actually, as she says in the next breath, she was given something. With this show, to which she gives so much, lots of things.
When she went to her first audition for Valley Song, a little less than a year ago, she had never met Fugard. "I'd seen MASTER HAROLD . . . and the boys, but the bulk of his work I had not read or seen." She'd brought in a monologue, as per request, ten lines she'd found about a child "who throws a spool of thread down a hill," but first Fugard asked her just to sit and chat with him about herself, her family, her beliefs.
"There is an aura that really shines around him. You can't help but be charmed by that, persuaded by that. The wonderful thing about the audition and the callback is that I felt good about me. Here was a person who never questioned my ability, never questioned my intelligence. And this has been true from that first day until we closed [the Stage II run] on January 21."
After the first audition she was sent a script. "I took a look, called my agent and said: 'There's been a terrible mistake. I don't sing. This is a musical. There are seven songs.' He said: 'Lisa, just go in and do it.' " Her agent must have known something. Nobody who ever sees Valley Song will soon forget Lisa Gay Hamilton's golden glow with those seven songs that come out of the soul of Veronica Jonkers, the 17-year old who swears: "You will never see me on my knees scrubbing a white man's floor" as, against her grandfather's plea, she heads off to break into show business in Johannesburg.
More gifts. "When I got the part, Athol said: 'By the way, if you can manage to get an airplane ticket, come to South Africa.' I thought he was kidding. But he wasn't. The fare was $1,800 or $1,900. I went to various foundations. None of them, no one, would lend me the money. No one. But I have a very loving sister"attorney Heidi Hamilton-Caldwell"who made it possible. Then, later, something amazing happened. The McCarter Theatre [in Princeton, N.J., where Valley Song tried out pre-New York] reimbursed me. I cried. No one had ever done that before."
In Nieu-Bethesda, the tiny village in the Karoo desert region of South Africa, Lisa Gay Hamilton soaked up everything she could about the real life Veronica, who was not on the scene, having in fact gone off to Johannesburgwhere, Lisa Gay was told, Veronica is currently working as a domestic.
"Athol had said: 'Don't think you're coming to South Africa to become Veronica. You are Veronica.' " Bite of the apple. "I think the fact that she dreams of being a singer exemplifies the dreams of any oppressed person."
Are you oppressed, Miss Hamilton?
"Oh, of course." When, where, how?
Her smile. "Every day I wake up and walk down the street."
As a black person? Or as a woman?
The smile breaks into a laugh. "I wouldn't give one a gold medal over the other." In actual fact, in the fifth grade at North County Elementary School, Stonybrook, L.I., the father of the boy who was the Tony to her Maria in West Side Story stormed into rehearsals to shout: "My son will not be in a play with a nigger."
That was a long time ago, just like apartheid. Valley Song is now.
-- By Jerry Tallmer