A Human Being Died That Night

Upstream Theater, Kranzberg Arts Center
Saint Louis

Ran May 12-28, 2017

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

In a beautifully articulated production, the Upstream Theater once again fulfills its stated raison d’etre, to give its audiences “food for the senses and the soul.” This play by Nicholas Wright is based on the book of the same name by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. It is mainly set in a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, and it opens on a large screen on which a swirling filmed montage of apartheid images appear and disappear, a perfect metaphor for the lives that had vanished there and for our own faulty memories of this appalling period in Africa’s history.

The piece covers a series of meetings conducted by Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Eugene de Kock, the political assassin of the apartheid era known as “Prime Evil.” He had been the commanding officer of the South African government death squad stationed at Viakplass and was known for the excessively cruel torture and murder of his black prisoners.

The Commission had been the inspiration of the newly-elected president Nelson Mandela in 1994, to help heal the wounds of the nation. Its primary mission was forgiveness. According to Desmond Tutu: “Its emphasis was on gathering evidence and uncovering information – from both victims and perpetrators – and not on prosecuting individuals for past crimes.”

Pumla’s professional challenge is to discover the truth behind de Kock’s actions and to reveal the motivations and rationales, both personal and political, which led to his dehumanization. But de Kock is still a very angry, complicated man; justifying the unimaginable cruelties he ordered as necessary, a “just war” ordered by his superiors “to get confessions.” He is bitter about being made the “fall guy” for the complicit others, who benefitted from apartheid practices but managed to escape punishment. Reluctantly engaging in these sessions, he hopes to receive amnesty for his 212-year prison sentence for his gross human rights violations.

The moral center and driving force of the piece is Pumla, and in these sessions she must face her doubts about the honesty of what he reveals, her own righteous anger, and her growing ambivalence about the dangers of emphathizing with him. De Kock has already shown some willingness to confront his past, but it is only Pumla’s determined probing that finally leads him into some semblance of remorse. In the face of his reviving memory he does ultimately take personal responsibility for his past -- and the one, single murder that had been real to him.

The most touching moment near the end of the play finds de Kock asking Pumla whether she would be able to forgive him if any of his victims had been people close to her. She is unable to reply. It is easy to understand. Not unlike an avenging angel, she has wrestled with him for the truth, but the truth is elusive and he is adroit throughout in defending himself. He tells her: “Pumla, you are looking for simple answers. But there aren’t any simple answers. It was a crazy situation all those years. Did I do wrong? Yes. Did I know it was wrong? Yes and no. That’s the best I can say. Good and bad got so mixed up you couldn’t untwist them.” Both of these people have been changed in significant ways by their interactions, but forgiveness …?

The two actors bring remarkable understanding and sensitivity to their respective interpretations. Christopher Harris is deeply affecting in his explorations of the torturous levels of de Kock’s reawakening conscience. His performance suggests at once the confusions of his early youth, the banality of the practiced criminal mind, and the continuing pain of his dehumanization. The play’s one weakness is that the relationship between the two characters is mostly formal and gives Jacqueline Thompson as Pumla little opportunity to react openly to de Kock. Her evolving reactions are revealed to the audience mostly as asides in narration, but the young actress is convincingly alive in her dignity and passionate restraint.

A Human Being Died That Night should be considered a resounding success for director Patrick Siler. The flawless integration of the acting, the scenic elements, and the overall pacing of the piece reveal a first-class talent, a refined sensibility and extraordinary craftsmanship. His collaborations with scenic designer Patrick Huber and the other designers on this production bring to mind another exquisitely realized Upstream production, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for which he received the 2016 St. Louis Theater Critics Circle Award for best director.

In a season devoted to apartheid issues, this haunting play is yet another heroic choice by the Upstream Theater – a morally challenging, searing look at the face and process of evil at a time when our own society is visibly struggling with these very issues. How fortunate we are in St. Louis to have such a theater.

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