The riveting, ready-made drama of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings animate a new production at the Mosaic Theater Company of DC.

Running in repertoire with Athol Fugard's "Blood Knot," "A Human Being Died That Night" is an account of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizeka's memoir of her work on the commission, turned into a play by Nicholas Wright Directed by Logan Vaughn.

It focuses on Gobodo-Madikizela's exchanges with a serial killer named Eugene de Kock. He was sentenced in 1996 to two live sentences plus 212 years in prison for a variety of charges including a half dozen counts of murder, conspiracy to murder, attempted murder, assault, kidnapping and fraud.

He did this as part of a counter-insurgency group of the South African Police targeting anti-apartheid activists and members of the African National Congress.

For Gobodo-Madikizela, her extensive interviews with him was in part doing her duty for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but to also resolve a question in her heart: could there actually be reconciliation or forgiveness for someone once nicknamed "Prime Evil."?

Essentially a two-person play, de Kock is led into the interrogation room in chains and padlocked to the floor as he begins his charm offensive on his wary interrogator. He admits the likenesses to "Silence of the Lambs" and tries to seem like not such a bad guy.

Gobodo-Madikizela wonders whether forgiveness in such an extreme case is even possible, but is more intrigued by the possibility that there may be aspects of his personality that are common in anyone.

Therefore the very specific details of this particular case widens into a philosophical inquiry in which we can all take part.

This may be a dialog that would be dry in other hands, but "A Human Being Died That Night" is elevated by two terrific actors, who both leap over the very strong barrier of a South African accent, and having mastered it (Kim Bey is dialect coach), step deeply into their characters.

Erica Chamblee is every bit the inquisitive professional as the widely traveled psychologist who conducts the interview; she saves a little of her self-doubt for the descriptions and confessions that come in soliloquies.

Chris Genebach's job is to be disarming and he is every bit that; trying at every turn to explain himself and encourage a lighter sentence for good behavior. Almost bookish in his look makes him seem that much more menacing: can evil be found in such ordinary people? Does evil even exist.

His efforts eventually pay off - he gets the 212 years shaved off, we are informed, but the two life sentences will still keep him behind bars.

Godobo-Madikizela is trapped somewhat in her own prison of her academic preconceptions and attempts to be open to the concept of a wholesale personality change, but is not quite sure of it.

It all ends a little abruptly, without a summary or conclusion. Perhaps it's still something that's being worked out; or perhaps a 2001 final meeting is meant to be that coda itself.

Director Vaughn keeps the tension tight; the shifts from monologue to dialog are marked with the kind of disorienting clang of prison doors common in such a place (David Lamont Wilson is sound designer).

Debra Booth's set is deceptively simple, with the bars of a cell backed by large scale projections (by Patrick Lord), giving a context to the conflict and history in South Africa and, in the end, giving a glimpse of the actual pair.

Not a lot of local theater companies look to world affairs to shine light on conflicts back home, let alone universal notions of forgiveness and reconciliation. But Mosaic since its start has been determined to do it that way, and shows how strong it can be with this work.

Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Erica Chamblee and Chris Genebach. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

"A Human Being Died That Night" by the Mosaic Theater Company runs through April 30 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, D.C. Call 202-399-7993 or go online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin Roger Catlin is a Washington based arts writer whose work appears regularly in The Washington Post and He has also written for Salon and (read more...)

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