In 1997 the psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, began meeting with Eugene de Kock, an imprisoned former assassin for the apartheid government. In a series of probing interviews, she attempted to understand de Kock: How does someone become the willing instrument of an inhuman regime?
Nicholas Wright’s harrowing A Human
Being Died That Night — now running at BAM — is based on Gobodo-Madikizela’s book about these conversations. Physically restrained and psychologically searching, the play restages the interviews, interspersed with Gobodo-Madikizela’s retrospective commentary. Seated across from each other in a prison conference room, the interlocutors roam across South Africa’s past, revisiting the cycles of atrocity that characterized apartheid’s final years. De Kock, haunted by his crimes while railing at the severity of his punishment, eagerly parses his own indoctrination. Gobodo-Madikizela, meanwhile, becomes aware of her complicity in the
era’s pervasive violence.
As Gobodo-Madikizela and de Kock, Noma Dumezweni and Matthew Marsh chart a steady course through conflicting motivations and uncertain memories. It’s a virtuosic demonstration of how to embody living historical figures without diminishing or distorting them.
In its wending journey through moral gray zones, the play offers few certainties. Instead we’re left to contemplate ideology’s terrible power to shape human destinies, and the
human wreckage that’s left behind when