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Monday, April 27, 2015

Parsing Pure Evil

Noma Dumezweni and Matthew Marsh in A Human Being Died That Night. Photo: Jesse Kramer
By Eric Grode

A well-spoken evildoer in prison clothes, holding (and withholding) key pieces of information. An inquisitive young woman eager to pry open the prisoner’s brain, even at the risk of being engulfed by what spills out.

This confrontation has fueled many a suspense thriller, from Silence of the Lambs to The Blacklist. And the Fugard Theater’s production of A Human Being Died That Night (playing the BAM Fisher May 29—June 21), adapted from the 2003 bestseller by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, dives into this same sinister tableau after a brief prologue. But director Jonathan Munby said the piece is looking to do a lot more than just set pulses to pounding.

“Nothing feels simplified nor dumbed down, nor does the subject ever feel shrink-wrapped to fit the drama,” Munby said of the piece. Instead, it “has the power to enlighten and educate as well as to move and inspire audiences.”

Matthew Marsh and Noma Dumezweni in A Human Being Died That Night. Photo: Jesse Kramer
In Nicholas Wright’s adaptation, the stage is nearly always inhabited by Gobodo-Madikizela (Noma Dumezweni), a Harvard-educated psychologist and member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Eugene de Kock (Matthew Marsh), the man known as “Pure Evil” for his apartheid-era crimes against black South Africans. In a series of meetings that take place over several years, with dialogue that is in several cases taken verbatim from their prison interviews, the two square off and find unlikely bonds over the way present-day actions can mitigate past crimes, both legally and morally.

Wright (Vincent in Brixton) was born in South Africa but has spent most of his life in the UK, and A Human Being actually premiered at London’s Hampstead Downstairs theater before transferring to the Fugard in Cape Town. This cosmopolitanism, Munby said, has shown that the play does not require an extensive background in or knowledge of South African history.

“We haven’t changed a thing for Western audiences,” he said. “We were extremely mindful of an audience needing to grapple with a lot of information and detail of South African politics. Nicholas Wright has cleverly woven in enough information for a Western audience to connect directly with the drama, without it feeling like a history lesson.”

Gobodo-Madikizela was in daily contact with Wright and the rest of the Human Being team during rehearsals, and Dumezweni and Marsh also met with de Kock in the Pretoria prison where he was being held. This is indicative of the effort made by both Wright and the rest of the Human Being team to represent both sides evenly, to not let the characters (or the audiences) shift their allegiances to Pumla. “Nick has managed to offer a balanced view, something I didn’t think possible, given the history and nature of the material,” Munby said. “Hopefully the play offers a means of understanding a complex situation from very different perspectives.”

This situation, with its shifting definitions of guilt, has been compared in various places (including on the Fugard Theater’s website) with Hannah Arendt’s reportage on the 1961 trial of the Holocaust overseer Adolph Eichmann, a moral interrogation that yielded the famous phrase “banality of evil.” But Munby rejects the simplistic nature of this phrase in both instances. “I think the term ‘evil’ is very misleading and unhelpful,” he said. “I’m not even sure what the term means, other than describing a projected point of view.”

When Wright adapted the book for the Fugard, which has emerged as a vibrant voice for South African playwriting since its founding in 2010, de Kock was serving a jail sentence of 212 years on top of two life sentences. In January of this year, however, he was granted parole, adding new layers of complexity to the questions of forgiveness and culpability in A Human Being.

Munby said this turn of events doesn’t make A Human Being any less relevant. “This is an intensely human play about fundamental ideas which affect us all,” he said. “The fact that it is a living story makes it even more profound. Without giving anything away, the ambiguities at the end of the piece take on a greater resonance now that de Kock is free.”

A Human Being Died That Night plays the BAM Fisher May 29—June 21.

Eric Grode, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, teaches in the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University.
Reprinted from April 2015 BAMbill.

1 comment:

  1. That genre of theatrical performance that consists of the reenactment of real-life dialogue is useful. It relates to conventional drama as documentaries relate to narrative movies. Here is an example: a pair of actors re-enacting the actual transcripts of jailhouse interviews between a psychologist and a convicted war criminal in post-apartheid South Africa.

    Having committed to verisimilitude in the underlying dialogue, the next question is a directorial one: to what extent does the performance render a recreation of the historical event itself? to what extent does it emphasize the inherent theatricality of such a staging?

    This production opted for the latter. The stripped down stage drenched in dry-ice smoke, sure enough included the costumes of shrink (gray pants suit, cassette tape recorder) and inmate (orange supermax uniform and the clanking shackles of a Dickensian jailbird) but apart from that, the production avoided any supplementary multimedia information on the monstrosities of the apartheid regime and the subsequent ravages of South Africa’s AIDS epidemic. The dialogue itself carried the sole responsibility of such contextualization.

    The option of starkness, therefore, turned the discussion into an Arendt-like meditation on the nature of evil, the motivation of its practitioners, the function of forgiveness. This focus provided a platform for a bravura rendition of Eugene de Kock, nicknamed Prime Evil, by Matthew Marsh: by turns intimidating, self-pitying, devious, brazen, contrite, manipulative, perceptive, pigheaded. The takeaway message of the play is that it really does not matter whether the onetime secret policeman is sincere or not in his apology for his crimes; what matters is that the political system -- that not only enabled the crimes but authorized them and required them for its own survival -- has been completely exposed and irreversibly dismantled.

    By contrast, the moral quandaries and professional motivations of the interrogating psychologist, played by Noma Dumezweni, went uninterrogated, even at the performance’s highest point of drama, when she unprofessionally reaches out to comfort the torturer, holding him by his “trigger hand.” The consequence of this lack of scrutiny was to offer a self-satisfied space of reassurance to the audience members -- we, identifying with her, are able to speculate on the nature of Prime Evil without having to account for our standing in this enterprise.

    Having thus generalized the question of evil, it was tempting to apply the lessons of the rogue secret policeman de Kock to the evils of the police state everywhere: not just the Nazis (per Arendt), but the colonial regimes of Algeria and Kenya, the Israelis on the West Bank, the CIA in Guantanamo, the police department on the streets of Baltimore.

    But that generalizing impulse is historically inappropriate. The play makes clear that apartheid was a different kind of police state. In most of those other cases of the depravity of power, the abuses represent either the repression of scapegoated minorities or the last defensive gasps of empire before retreat back to the mother country.

    South Africa really was an exception: the ambition of the white minority -- not colonialists but settlers -- to impose its apartheid rule on such a vast population was heroic, delusional, desperate, necessarily paranoid, in its futility.

    The decision by this production to try to teach the theatergoers of Brooklyn abiding lessons about the nature of evil, truth and reconciliation was off the mark. Better to provide more documentary specificity about South Africa per se as it tries to rebuild from the unique depravity that apartheid represented.