Regional Reviews: St. Louis
A Human Being Died That Night
Set in South Africa around the millennium, this true story, by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and adapted by Nicholas Wright, is powerful, dramatic and harrowingeven though most of it takes place inside a small visitor's room inside a prison. Christopher Harris plays Eugene de Kock, a white policeman swept into the violent counter-insurgency, where he brutally killed black rebels fighting against apartheid. Every time I've seen Mr. Harris on stage in recent years, he's been a very powerful performer. But every single time, he's vastly transformed himself, and exhibited that great power in a completely different way. The results here are explosive.
The other performer is Jacqueline Thompson, finding equal depth in a quieter role. She plays Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a black psychologist and author who questions Mr. de Kock on his guilt, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings after the rise of the African National Congress. Kind and elegant, Ms. Godobo-Madikizela also steps aside occasionally to address the audience directly and present her case in excerpts from a lecture.
But under the seemingly simple direction of Patrick Siler the tension becomes remarkably high. An accomplished black woman gently questions a physically overwhelming white man in a tiny space that resembles a 3-D crossword puzzle. He speaks freely and frighteningly about his past, about trying to stop black freedom fighters from toppling the old white colonial government. And Mr. Harris, in his portrayal, stands right up at the firing line, with complete commitment and intelligence and artistic precision. The few moments where de Kock (his nickname was "Prime Evil") shows actual remorse or anguish are equally worthwhile in the storytellingnot as some sort of stalking horse for an enlightened, modern audience to look down upon, but as a means of showing a man whose sense of reality has become impossibly warped.
Describing forty hours of interviews, A Human Being Died That Night uses Ms. Godobo-Madikizela's (usually) calm, professional demeanor to contrast Mr. de Kock's increasingly shocking tales of torture and murder. And somehow, in the process, her race and accomplishments heighten the conflict, making his unguarded passions terrifyingly believable.
Accents and cultural attitudes seem flawless to this American listener; and there is outstanding multi-media created for the very fluid video montages of South Africa: its people and aerial views of shantytowns and leaders and conflict. Logistically, it is awkward that the stage manager is placed just off audience-right. That means, if you're sitting close by, he can be heard calling technical cues through much of the showso you probably want to sit audience-left when you see this great, entrancing production.
It's another totally unique artistic experience from Upstream Theatre. In this case, simple testimony rises to heights of great drama.
A Human Being Died That Night, through May 28, 2017, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd. For more information visit www.upstreamtheater.org.
Director: Patrick Siler
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the US
** Denotes Equity Membership Candidate