You might not think that a man whose crimes against humanity during South Africa’s apartheid regime had earned him the nickname “Prime Evil” would want to be interviewed, in the prison where he is serving a double life sentence plus 212 years, by a young black woman representing the government of Nelson Mandela. Yet the former police colonel Eugene de Kock — one of the two central characters in the enormously compelling A Human Being Died That Night, now playing at BAM’s Fishman Space — is not only willing but eager. Bound to a chair in chains that crunch each time he moves, dressed in bright-orange coveralls, this confessed assassin, convicted for murders, tortures, assaults, and kidnappings he committed to “save” South Africa from its black majority, now nervously awaits his opportunity to represent himself to a member of that majority as a mere cog in a bigger system, not the “unique monster” his nickname and sentence suggest. He would like it known that men who did as much as he, or even worse, were never convicted; indeed, some were promoted. De Kock was just among the unlucky ones “caught in the spotlights.”
Whether or not you believe him — and the play basically makes you believe him — his motives for saying so quickly come to seem clear. He has genuine remorse and also hopes for a pardon. But what are his interlocutor’s motives? Yes, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela was a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which capacity she had observed de Kock’s official testimony and the extraordinary results of his subsequent request to meet with the widows of four men murdered in a 1989 bombing he directed. (They forgave him.) But Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist by training, continued to interview de Kock well after she left the commission. The book she eventually wrote about their meetings, which became the source of this 2013 play by Nicholas Wright, could not have been her only reason for recording 400 hours of conversation with him over the course of five years starting in 1997. She must have been trying to understand something so deep and complicated about human nature that only a personal relationship with evil at its source could address it.
Perhaps because such ideas are so difficult to wrangle, and the documentary content involved is so horrific, the play is structured as simply as possible. Gobodo-Madikizela (portrayed here, as in the original British and South African productions, by the riveting Noma Dumezweni) simply appears at an onstage lectern, before any lights dim, as if to give a talk at a seminar. She clicks through a few PowerPoint slides depicting various genocides and flatly offers a topic sentence: “What should our attitude be to people who have committed atrocities?” We are then transported to a visiting room at de Kock’s Pretoria prison, where the interviews themselves, sprinkled with occasional bits of narration, take up the entirety of the 80-minute, intermissionless playing time. There is no formal trickery or, you might say, formal relief; there is barely even conflict in the traditional sense, because Gobodo-Madikizela insists, at least at first, that she has no personal ax to grind (“one had to remain detached”) and de Kock is (for different reasons) as invested as she is in exploring the concept of reconciliation.
Still, there is shock, some of it purely the visceral result of seeing these characters in such close proximity. (The Silence of the Lambs is namechecked.) Some other part of the shock is philosophical. The play inexorably gathers evidence to contradict the idea, expressed by Hannah Arendt in her reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, that evil can neither be forgiven nor properly punished. Rather, we are offered a counterintuitive and victim-based argument for clemency. The argument begins in Matthew Marsh’s brilliant portrayal of de Kock as a man so trapped within the terrifying prison of his own past behavior that he must jump away from any emotion as if it were a hot stove. Yet he’s no penny-dreadful villain. Although he shows us that de Kock’s understanding of human feeling lacks nuance, and that he is at best only jaggedly self-reflective, he also shows us that this does not mean he has no emotions or lacks the capacity for remorse. The problem, the play demonstrates, is that remorse must be midwifed. It cannot meaningfully exist without someone to be remorseful to, and cannot confirm itself without forgiveness, at which point the work of suffering or mourning may be transferred, becoming the perpetrator’s burden instead of the victim’s or survivors’. This was the point of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: a form of self-reflection at a national level. And though subsequent South African governments have undermined many of the commission’s successes, it remains an inspiring (and, alas, all but unique) example of a nation’s trying to escape the grip of its past by facing it.
In light of the play’s importance, and its gripping story, it is barely relevant that, purely as dramatic literature, A Human Being Died That Night feels slightly undernourished. In compressing the years of interviews, Wright has imposed a dramatic arc — Gobodo-Madikizela’s growing understanding that, in fact, one must not “remain detached” — that fits a bit lumpily over the contours of the material. There are a few too many lines like “the difference between good and evil is only paper thin,” and surprisingly little psychology for a play about a psychologist. (A section in which Gobodo-Madikizela truffles around in de Kock’s youth for clues is nonproductive; no surprise, he had a harsh father and an embarrassing stutter.) The director, Jonathan Munby, doesn’t help by occasionally resorting to eerie sound and fog effects. The story doesn’t need any of these, especially as enacted so vibrantly; Munby’s work with the actors is excellent. I have to admit I was even a bit confused when, as part of a talkback after the show, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela herself took the stage. She was warm, smart, and compelling, but Noma Dumezweni played her better.
De Kock, I’m happy to report despite the play’s lesson of forgiveness, was not in attendance. He could have been, though; he was paroled in January.
A Human Being Died That Night is at the BAM Fisher Theater’s Fishman Space through June 21.