Gamm’s A Human Being Died that Night Is Noteworthy

bd75c5_79ed13d6adf04766934b0ff697b5c700~mv2_d_3600_2403_s_4_2“We were expected to destroy one another and ourselves collectively in the worst racial conflagration. Instead, we, as a people, chose the path of negotiation, compromise and peaceful settlement. Instead of hatred and revenge we chose reconciliation and nation-building.” – Nelson Mandela

“Eugene (de Kock) is no longer radically ‘other’ for me. He is, for better or for worse, a human being.” – Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

As we struggle in America to find a way to move forward with race relations while acknowledging the atrocities and missteps of the past, the constant shuffle of progress versus regression hinders our forward movement. While we have made certain leaps in the last few decades, the specter of racism exists every day in our schools, in our streets and in our politics. One would be hard-pressed to find a common ground with a white policeman who guns down an unarmed black teen, or with a politician whose policies foment institutionalized bigotry. It is such common ground, however, that elevates understanding, and seeks to find the roots of such evil. This concept, with some mixed results, was the framework for the post-apartheid government of Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. By forming commissions to uncover objective truths about the past, an effort was made to understand the causes of such systemic hatred in order to never let it repeat itself in the future. For many, giving “monsters” a platform to explain themselves was antithetical to both justice and healing. That struggle, the idea of allowing criminals to be human, even for a small window of time, is at the heart of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s autiobiographical A Human Being Died That Night.

Eugene de Kock, known as “Prime Evil” for his role in the torture and murder of anti-apartheid activists, was sentenced to 212 years plus two life sentences. It is in his cell that most of the action takes place, a series of interviews by Gobodo-Madikizela, a black female psychologist who serves on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her prime motivation is to get at the heart of a “monster” who, in a seemingly uncharacteristic gesture at his trial, asks for a moment to privately apologize to the widows of men whom he has destroyed. Beyond professional curiosity, of which there is a fair amount, Pumla seeks the man underneath and the answers to what could have happened in his life to bring him to such a grotesquely tragic circumstance.

As a script, the original text of the novel, based on transcripts of these prison conversations (which de Kock amusingly compares to “Silence of the Lambs” in one of the play’s lighter moments) form the backbone of the dialogue, and it is more than compelling. Aside from Pumla’s evident guilt and distress over her sister’s death by HIV, which disproportionately ravaged the African continent, the back and forth focuses on de Kock’s motivations, his bone-chilling recollections and his cold, almost clinical, regret. Kortney Adams and Jim O’Brien deliver star turns here, with Adams capturing both the dialect and the struggle of Gobodo-Madikizela to remain dispassionate while brimming with a whirlwind of emotion. O’Brien, a Gamm regular, is a maelstrom of technique, capturing de Kock’s struggle with speaking a second language (English) as well as keeping a stutter at bay. Under Judith Swift’s direction, however, both actors are pushed to create movement and action where none may be necessary.

Part of the distraction away from the strength of both the actors and the script comes from the staging, platforms with steps that are ill-defined in terms of location and coated with paint spatters that come across as an explosion of silly string. Perhaps the intention was to invoke an unravelling, a metaphor for the layers of both de Kock’s psyche and a loosening of Pumla’s guardedness, but the effect is messy and ineffective. A backdrop of paper allows for de Kock to occasionally paint, with cuffed hands, illustrations of what he saying, but what promised to hold deeper psychological meaning ends up being an excuse to punch a hole to let some symbolic light shine through. Awkward, as well, are the projections that serve to give some faces to names and places mentioned during the conversations, but just as often, superfluous slides are added that give a far too literal illustration of what is being said. “I drove home that night” is punctuated by a lonely highway, for instance. In the end, it feels as if Swift did not trust either the script or the actors to hold our attention, which could not be further from the truth. This play would have been riveting with simply two chairs and a table. Charles Cofone’s sound design, which is usually spot-on, seems perfunctory at times, except for one harrowing sequence toward the end where heavy breathing and stereoscopic gunshots achieve their intended goal. O’Brien is made to act out his memories in far too literal a fashion, at times, which again serves to pull us out of the scenes in order to observe the technique.

All of which is to say that this production of A Human Being Died That Night is so noteworthy, and so timely, we yearn for the perfection of its inherent simplicity in order to discover the complexity for ourselves, rather than have it served up on a platter. It’s a stunning production, not because of, but despite the technical embellishments. As de Kock points out, “the difference between good and evil is only paper thin,” and to see these two actors walk that razor’s edge is why we go to the theater.

The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St, Pawtucket presents the New England premiere of A Human Being Died That Night by Nicholas Wright, based on the novel by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. March 8 – April 1. For tickets and more information, visit gammtheatre.org or call 401-723-4266.

 

 

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