Mosaic Theater Company is only in its second year of producing but, planting itself firmly on Washington’s H Street corridor in northeast Washington, the team of Ari Roth and Serge Seiden has already made a name for the production company by putting on provocative dramatic writing that raises important social and political dialogue.
Now the company pairs two plays from Africa’s sub-continent under the umbrella South Africa: Then & Now. “Then” is represented by Athol Fugard whose works have been well-represented locally, not only by Studio Theatre but by other theatres including MetroStage and African Continuum Theatre, and whose international reputation after fifty years continues to make Fugard “one of the world’s most important [live] playwrights writing plays that matter.”
A Human Being Died That Night is not the play that Fugard crafted in Blood Knot, but that bar is extremely high. Playwright Nicholas Wright has instead gone for a stripped down presentation that feels like a docudrama, a dramatized transcript of several conversations that took place between a psychologist, Gobodo-Madikizela, and Eugene de Kock in Pretoria’s Central Prison between 1997-2002.
To a great extent the work and the psychologist’s book that was its source comes from the radical exploration of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) to address the brutality and unpunished crimes against humanity under South Africa’s apartheid system. Rather than “an eye for an eye,” TRC approached unification of a country that blended tenets of psychology and Christianity: by listening to both victims and perpetrators TRC worked for confession as a way to begin the healing.
A Human Being Died That Night therefore contains a kind of raw radical power, treading the thin line between drama and a live ritual of confession. We in the audience become implicated as we listen. Are we, like the psychologist, losing our emotional objectivity, and is that necessary to move forward together to build a just and more equitable society? As the racist killer learns to see the face behind what he saw only as “the other,” so we begin to see his face, and he becomes no longer the convenient “monster” in our minds but someone much more complex and recognizably human.
Not easy, the production was nevertheless genuine, honest, and taut, in great part due to the splendid performances of the two leads Erica Chamblee and Chris Genebach. To my ear their accents were impeccable, and their nuanced negotiation of the very static construct of the play kept my attention. They were able to find both humor in the macabre situation and genuine pathos.
Recently I watched the opera Dead Man Walking, and there were similarities in the themes. The opera based on the book and film has a central tension between a criminal and a “listener,” in that case of the confessor-figure Sister Helen Prejean.
In that show as in this one, the one who comes to listen, to interview, to try and understand the criminal mind, is the one who has the most to learn from an unlikely teacher. Here, De Kock has to face his past – that is for sure – but there is another emotional journey just as powerful with the Gobodo-Madikizela character who is challenged to open her heart deeply to a man who must represent moral bankruptcy to her and that must at times feel like a betrayal to all of her people.
From the moment the actress comes out as part of what seems to be a curtain speech and then quietly changes her glasses to melt into the atmosphere of the prison, we believe her righteous quest – to get to the bottom of who this man was and why and how he could commit such atrocities. He says what so many have said in his position but it is no less part of the truth for all that, “I was a cog in a bigger system.”
The reluctance to take responsibility for one’s actions seems an all too familiar element of the universal character engaged in crimes against humanity just as are his euphemisms for torture and killing. But having him voice things like “the violence gave me the feeling of self-disgust” and how he nonetheless recognizes he was “a violence junkie” felt stingingly fresh. Genebach removes his glasses from time to time and it is as if he sheds his mask at these moments and digs into the black horrors in the human heart.
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A Human Being Died That Night
closes April 30, 2017
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De Kock is a courageous one for taking us on his journey. But why is his character so compelled? Is it loneliness that motivates him (he was sentenced to two lifetimes plus 212 years in prison) or a deep-seated need in the human heart to dig oneself out of hell and seize the opportunity for redemption?
The process is painful for them both, but the courage to go on this journey together creates not love exactly – this is not Sister Prejean’s curious “love story” – but a connection so intimate that at times it took my breath away. “You want to understand me,” de Kock challenges her, “But you don’t want to risk –…” Another moment he speaks crudely to her, “That was my trigger hand you touched.” She explodes at him in response as only someone can who cares deeply enough to draw blood. Few lovers ever bare themselves so honestly to each other. We human beings yearn for that.
Debra Booth’s set is bare, a cage with bars on three sides about the size of an old fashioned exhibit at an urban zoo. De Kock makes a grizzly and distasteful joke about it possibly reminding her of the visitation site of Hannibal Lector by the Judy Foster character. There wasn’t even directed pacing except for one energetic explosion by Chamblee out of her chair. Her chair, his chair, the tape recorder on the table in between them, this was their ritual and what formed their relationship.
Logan Vaughn is a young director who has been building up credits in Chicago and New York and with this production clearly demonstrated she is a committed and passionate one. In this play, she trusts that the transcript and her actors will be able to keep the audience arrested simply by the power of the modern history of South Africa. She is right to do so.
A Human Being Died That Night. Written by Nicholas Wright. Based on the Book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Directed by Logan Vaughn. Music composed by Mongezi Ntaka. Set designed by Debra Booth. Lighting Designed by Michael Giannitti. Costumes designed by Brandee Mathies. Sound designed by David Lamont Wilson. Properties by Michelle Elwyn. Dramaturgy by Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe. Projections designed by Patrick Lord. Dialect coach by Kim Bey. With Erica Chamblee and Chris Genebach. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith