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