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Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG

at International City Theatre in Long Beach

Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG

Valley Song by South African master playwright Athol Fugard tells a gentle story of how the generations cope with the end of apartheid in South Africa. The story centers on a young woman who wants to leave home to begin to lead her own life. But her grandfather takes this as an insult to his way of life and everything he has worked for, especially the land which means so much to him.

In this two-actor, three-character play, Shepperd takes on the roles of Abraam Jonkers, a mixed-race old man who has been a pumpkin farmer his entire life, and The Author, a White man who wants to buy the land where Abraam lives and works, potentially leaving him homeless. And since these roles were originally doubled by Fugard himself, I decided to speak with Michael A. Shepperd about preparing for such a challenging artistic endeavor.

Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me, Michael. It is always an absolute pleasure talking with you

What first attracted you to this dual-race, double-role part?

I don't know if I was attracted to it as much as scared of it. Lol. This is probably one of the hardest shows I've ever done. The sheer volume of dialogue is close to being overwhelming. Maybe that is what makes it attractive. Proving to myself I can overcome my Covid brain fog (y'all, it's a very real thing) and actually say all the lines in the correct order.

Have you ever been to or lived in South Africa?

I have never been to South Africa. It is on my bucket list. When we decided to go a few years ago, we realized our children were too young to get the full travel experience. So now that they are young adults, it's going to happen sooner than later

As a Black man in America, I am sure you have experienced your own racial inequalities in your everyday life. Is there any one in particular that you care to share, or inspired you to take on these two roles?

Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG There are only a select few Black folx who can say they have never experienced racial injustice. And they would be lying.

The character of Buks has lived through apartheid and now he is watching his granddaughter grow up in an era post-apartheid. And I feel for that character very much. Because he's afraid of what this "new" world is going to do to his grandchild. As a father I think those same things every day. And I can put those feelings into this performance. Every day I am existing to create change in the world when it comes to racial inequity. Is there one thing that has happened to me that has made me this person I am? No. But I can name several thousand that have.

Did you see the March 1997 touring production of Valley Song at the Mark Taper Forum?

I did not sadly. I didn't move to Los Angeles until 1999.

Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG In what ways did you research the author and/or post-apartheid South Africa to prepare to take on these characters?

There is so much information out there about apartheid and Athol Fugard. I watched a lot of his interviews because I wanted to represent his true voice when I portray him on stage. The two characters are not vastly different in their beliefs. They both love the people around them as well as having a deep connection to the earth, the soil they grew up on. I just want to be sure I give them each the weight and the honor that they deserve.

Asked about casting one actor to play both roles, playwright Fugard explained, "It's not a question of a White or a Black actor for those two roles. Imagine you've got a coin, and you flip it, and if it's heads you win and if it tails you lose. And you flip it, and it lands on heads, it means you're Athol Fugard. You're born with a white skin with all the privileges that go with that white skin. You flip the same coin, and it comes up tails-and you're Abraam Jonkers, born with a dark skin, deprived of land ownership, no education, virtually no freedom to move or travel. It's as close as that. The two sides of the same coin. That was the affinity I felt when I first met that old man. I really felt that I was seeing a reverse image of myself."

Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG Do you see yourself playing the two roles from the same viewpoint, perhaps from the other side of that same coin? How will you be morphing from one character to the other? A quick change of costume and/or a completely different physicality?

The way that Fugard has written this play there is really no time to do any type of costume changes. The character stays in the same costume the entire show. So it is up to me to establish the physicality of both of these characters. It's a tough gig especially because I have two scenes where I talk to myself in two different accents. Actually there are four different characters but you'll have to come and see the show to see who the other two are.

Have you worked with either actor Belle Guillory or director caryn desai [sic] before?

This is my second show with caryn and 3rd show with ICT. We first worked together when she directed RAISIN! Many, many years ago. It was a very rewarding and super emotional experience. This is my first time working with Belle and I have to tell you, I am in great hands. Don't let her youth fool you; she is incredibly gifted and was born to be an actor.

Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG What is exciting you the most about this production?

Fugard is very clever in his writing and how he makes us think about racial injustice. I think the audience will have a lot to discuss after watching this show and how it relates to current times. Anytime you can create dialogue after watching or seeing art, is always exciting.

I know you have so many logs on the fire in your own life. What else is coming up for you during and/or after this play?

I'm scheduled to direct two plays in this upcoming season at two different theatres. I also have my weekly podcast, Boozin with Gays, and I'm about to celebrate my 25th anniversary. So lots coming up!

Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG For all those interested in seeing the production, especially Michael A. Shepperd taking on this dual-race double role, and Belle Guillory as Abraam Jonkers' 17-year-old granddaughter, Valley Song, directed by ICT artistic director caryn desai [sic], runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., August 26 through September 11 at International City Theatre, located in the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center at 330 East Seaside Way, Long Beach, CA 90802. Two preview performances take place on Wednesday, Aug. 24 and Thursday, Aug. 25, both at 8 p.m. Tickets are $49 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (except August 26, opening night, for which tickets are $55 and include a post-show reception), and $52 at Sunday matinees. Low-priced tickets to previews are $37.

Interview: Michael A. Shepperd on Taking on a Dual-Race Double Role in VALLEY SONG To purchase tickets and for more information, including up-to-date Covid-19 safety protocols on the day of each performance, go to www.InternationalCityTheatre.org or call (562) 436-4610.

International City Theatre has formed a community partnership with the African American community in Long Beach with the purpose of bringing our diverse community together, raising funds for college scholarships, and bringing students to the production. A Community Partnership Package, which includes a pre-performance Gala dinner as well as the post-show reception with the actors on opening night, is $125; tables of ten are available for $1,200.

Michael A. Shepperd and Belle Guillory in Valley Song
Photos by Kayte Deioma



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