Monday, June 15, 2015

"A Human Being Died That Night" - Putting a Face on Evil

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Richard Termine

When it comes to war criminals and those responsible for mass killings, there's a tendency to think of them as inhuman monsters because it's far more terrifying to realize they're just flesh and blood human beings. A realization which makes their actions all the more horrible, as it begs the question how could one person deliberately act that way toward others. It's a question one woman tries to answer in Nicholas Wright's intimate and powerful drama, A Human Being Died That Night, based on the book by psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, now at the Fishman Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In 1996, Gobodo-Madikizela (Noma Dumezweni), a former resident of South Africa, then living in the United States returns to her native land to serve on the Human Rights Violation Committee, part of the government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization trying to help put right the wrongs of the nation's apartheid era. As Pumla listens to testimony from the numerous victims of that time, many of whom still bear the scars of what happened, she quickly learns must she not get emotionally involved or she will not be able to properly do her job. It's a promise she's able to keep until she has a series of interviews with Eugene de Kock (Matthew Marsh), dubbed "Prime Evil" by the media and formerly a major figure in the South African military. When the two first meet, de Kock is in prison serving two consecutive life sentences, plus 212 years. Gobodo-Madikizela's purpose of these meetings is to try to learn what makes a man do the things for which de Kock was convicted, all of which he has freely admitted. In fact, de Kock previously testified at the TRC hearings, which is where Gobodo-Madikizela first became intrigued by him.

However Gobodo-Madikizela quickly realizes that getting to the heart of the matter is not as easy as turning on a tape recorder and hearing the truth spill out. As de Kock notes early on "you must dig in the dirt with me [and] feel the evil". A process that requires Gobodo-Madikizela to get to know the man behind the atrocites while walking in his footsteps as he descibes what happened and why.

What makes the story so involving is that the various incidents described, as well as the reasons behind them are sadly quite relatable to other situations around the world, both past and present. de Kock seeing himself as a sort of crusader in the name of national security, joining the army at an early age and quickly becoming indoctrinated to the so-called dangers from segments of the black majority. He also recalls the continual pressure from his superiors to produce results in order to please the politicians; even if they had to invent an enemy or make them a bigger threat than they actually were. Also brought forth is the general apathy of people who simply want to feel safe in their lives and lifestyles. People who really don't much care how that is accomplished, so long as they can feel safe at night. 
Also present in the story is a continuing theme about the power of forgiveness and the need to let go of the past in order to move forward. Though as the show makes clear, it's easier to forgive the sins of others then to forgive oneself. de Kock still tormented by some of his past deeds and Gobodo-Madikizela recalling all too well her own actions when witnessing events in connection with an attempted military coup in 1990. Actions which then seemed celebratory, but for which she is now ashamed.

Marsh portrayal of de Kock is top notch, initially answering questions in a quiet and somewhat roundabout way, with occasional outbursts of emotion, before getting to at least the surface of the truth; and finally showing the human being he once was, how he became the man he is today and most poignant of all, why he didn't change his course when he had the chance. Marsh's manner is so controlled and informative as to be almost intoxicating. So much so that no matter how repulsed one may feel toward the character, one can't help be drawn into the tale. Also present in Marsh's performance is the ever-present anger de Kock feels at those higher up in his command chain who denied their involvement in his crimes, trying to whitewash themselves, no pun intended, in order to save their own skins. As he notes, it was this continual denial from so many quarters that initially prompted him to volunteer to testify at the TRC hearings

Dumezweni works well as Gobodo-Madikizela, though she has the less showy role, basically a reacting one to Marsh's de Kock. The actress presenting a strong portrait of a woman initially trying to have no preconceptions whatsoever about her subject, yet becomes far closer to him and what he represents then she ever thought possible. While using the de Kock encounters a sort of sounding board for her inner thoughts, Gobodo-Madikizela also shows herself to be someone trying to come to terms with her own past actions, as well as being able to let go of the pains of injustice and stigmatization that still exists in her home country and towards those that perpetuate it.

Jonathan Munby's directorial work is very strong here, operating in tandem with Paul Wills' nicely claustrophobic prison cell setting where the interviews are conducted. All of which allows the story to unfold in an almost leisurely way in the beginning, while getting more intense and focused as what's revealed becomes darker and more painful. Helping to add to this oppressive and emotionally charged atmosphere is the excellent lighting work by Tim Mitchell and sound design by Tim Shutt. Both of which feel at times jarringly unforgiving.

Rivetingly told from start to finish, A Human Being Died That Night delves into the soul of a man who did terrible things in the name of his country and shows how deep down, he's not that different from your next-door neighbor, or perhaps at certain moments, even yourself.

Featuring: Noma Dumezweni (Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela), Matthew Marsh (Eugene de Kock), Motell Foster (Prison Guard).

A Human Being Died That Night
by Nicholas Wright
based on the book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Design: Paul Wills
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Stage Manager: Julia Slienger
Associate Director: Greg Karvellas
American Stage Manager: R. Michael Blanco
Directed by Jonathan Munby

The Fugard Theatre and Eric Abraham
Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Fishman Space
321 Ashland Place
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Closes: June 21, 2015

No comments: