Review: Upstream Theater's Provocative A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT

By: May. 20, 2017
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It's uncanny the way that Upstream Theater is able to produce plays that consistently tackle issues that, while often international in scope, often resonate with situations we face in our own country and, in particular, the current political climate we find ourselves in. A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT is a very intriguing and powerful work by Nicholas Wright (adapted from a book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela) that focuses our attention on post-apartheid South Africa, and which delves into the institutionalized racism that gripped that area of the world for many, many years. It's a subject that it is abhorrent in nature, but one which we seem to see America headed toward with the rise of white nationalist actions and policies. The seeds seem to have been sown with the cultural backlash from certain quarters following the election of Barack Obama, our first African American president, and which are starting to become more dangerously vocal and violent since he left office and was replaced by our current president, who surrounds himself with people whose agendas and ideologies are in direct conflict with the progress that has occurred since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. This work, though it deals mainly with conciliatory efforts, is one that needs to be seen as a reminder that, if we are to continue to progress as an open society, we need to remain vigilant as citizens to ensure we do not take steps backwards in this regard. There's a lot to contemplate here, and this production is decidedly must-see theatre.

The play shows us interviews that occurred between Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist working for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Eugene De Kock, a man known as "Prime Evil" for the highly politicized actions and atrocities he undertook during the apartheid era while working for the military. Is De Kock simply a cog in a "hate machine" who became a scapegoat for a regime that tortured and assassinated blacks? And is he actually aware of the nature of his crimes, and determined to see that justice is served, by explaining the politics that drove these acts to be committed? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

Jacqueline Thompson provides a strong characterization of Pumla, questioning De Kock in an effort to determine his culpability, and also to understand why he would testify in opposition to the state rendered view of the events that took place. She's also curious as to why he would seek an audience with those whose lives were forever changed by the violence that claimed members of their families in order to seek forgivenesS. Thompson's performance deftly brings out the complexities that define Pumla, exploring the conflicting feelings that led her to question her own sense of joy when a white perpetrator was killed during those difficult times. Christopher Harris is equally compelling as De Kock, exploring the forces that conspired to place him in prison for consecutive life terms (he was initially sentenced to an additional 212 years of incarceration). Harris faces the difficult challenge of humanizing someone who has been painted as the very face of the inhumanity of apartheid, and he's more than up to the task. Together, they examine the questions surrounding his contradictory acts, and it's both fascinating and disturbing to watch unfold.

Patrick Siler directs, and there's an intensity in the performances that never wanes, but does evolve over time. Though the staging could lend itself to a rather static presentation, that never occurs here because we find ourselves so deeply drawn into these conversations that take place. Patrick Huber's scenic design presents us with a stylized cell for the interviews, and is greatly enhanced by the media design of Michael Dorsey, which provides images of a country in turmoil over their racist policies. Michele Friedman Siler's costumes neatly delineate each character, and Joseph W. Clapper's lighting design sets the tone for each encounter.

Upstream Theater's presentation of A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT is a tale of reconciliation that provides plenty of food for thought. It's a mesmerizing and provocative experience that I highly recommend, especially in these uncertain times, and it continues through May 28, 2017.

Photo credit: ProPhotoSTL