Nicholas Wright’s powerful, superbly acted A Human Being Died That Night is adapted from a 2003 book subtitled “A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid.” That woman, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a black psychologist who was appointed by Nelson Mandela to South Africa’s extraordinary Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), wrote of a series of dialogues she had with Eugene de Kock, the police commander who led the apartheid regime’s death squads and netted the nickname “Prime Evil.” Sentenced to two life terms plus 212 years in Pretoria’s maximum-security prison, de Kock experienced an unusual awakening of conscience captured in courtroom proceedings and Gobodo-Madikizela’s interviews.
Wright’s script, Jonathan Munby’s direction, and two actors of great subtlety and range turn this story into a fascinating dual portrait for the stage. Matthew Marsh in the meaty role of de Kock deploys a broad and rich emotional palette to paint the prisoner’s emotions and his now-divided personality, half cocky, half humiliated. As much as De Kock has come to regret the torture and murder he committed over the years, he is furious at his colleagues who haven’t owned up to their parts in it.
Having spent his prison time ruminating over his guilt and what made him capable of such atrocities, he welcomes the arrival of Gobodo-Madikizela. His need to talk over his past with someone intelligent is practically palpable, even through the brittle edge with which he confronts her on their first meeting, when he feels her out by interviewing her as much as she is interviewing him.
When he says things like “You must dig in the dirt with me, you’ve got to feel the evil,” we can feel that he’s got one eye observing himself, aware he’s putting on a performance for her even as he challenges her to dig deeper into herself to discover the human in him.
Noma Dumezweni’s subtle and commanding portrayal of Gobodo-Madikizela is if anything even more remarkable, giving us a deeply nuanced view into someone much more reserved and intellectually focussed. Gradually we learn that her own motivations arise only partially from her youthful experiences under apartheid, and they extend well beyond her professional pursuit of knowledge. Things both wonderful (the TRC) and terrible (former president Thabo Mbeki’s murderous denial that HIV causes AIDS) have happened in South Africa since the end of apartheid, and Gobodo-Madikizela experienced them all firsthand.
Just as the psychologist is on a mission to find the human in the monster (or at least the monstrous), this “monster” saw himself at the time “as a crusader” and now considers himself “a veteran of lost ideologies” – at least, when he is able to be dispassionate, which is not always. It is Marsh’s and the script’s stunning accomplishment to plausibly reconcile this self-image with the honest humility of his atonement. Recollecting how he took aside the widows of two of his murder victims, apologized to them unreservedly, and received actual forgiveness, de Kock breaks down and cries.
Almost in parallel, the psychologist convicts herself of complicity in the grisly aftermath of a failed 1990 coup in the Transkei homeland engineered, it was alleged, by the South African government. So there are no simple answers, and perhaps the worst part of the whole trauma of apartheid is that, as de Kock tells Pumla at the end, “We killed a lot of people, they killed some of ours, and we fought for nothing…We fought each other basically, eventually, for nothing at all.”
But when he asks her what’s “in her heart,” she has a dual answer: “Anger and hope.” Whether de Kock’s hopes for forgiveness have been borne out, only he can say. But he was paroled in January 2015.
A Human Being Died That Night premiered last year in a production by Eric Abraham and the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, after which it transferred to London’s Hampstead Theatre. It runs through June 21 at BAM‘s Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn NY.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0618446591][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0316548189][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0684848287][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00HEM9Q16][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1479821608]