Challenges from History

Noma Dumezweni and Matthew Marsh Photo by Richard Termine

On a whim last summer, I picked up a used copy of The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950. I finally got around to reading it this spring, and was quickly absorbed in the vivid and bleak reality depicted therein: a woman in Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) descending into madness because she feels pressured to conform to societal expectations, while the nation perpetuates the larger scale systemic oppression of its black citizens. Lessing does well to explain exactly how and why each white character justifies their role in obeying the edicts of segregated white rule, which makes the story exponentially more disturbing. Although the book opens with a murder (of Mary, by her “houseboy”), it is far from a mystery, as Lessing unpacks every moment and injustice that led up to the murder over the course of the novel.

Fifty-seven years later, Eric Abraham came across Dr. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s written account of her experience interviewing Eugene de Kock, a former South African policeman nicknamed “Prime Evil.” Abraham, a former South African journalist and activist who had been targeted by the same secret service that de Kock later led, commissioned Nicholas Wright to turn the book into a play. Thusly, A Human Being Died That Night, a play that tackles the subject of apartheid with the same brutal honesty as Lessing’s novel and tempered with a genuine exploration of human psychology, was born.

The storytelling is very straightforward, and the set was appropriately sparse, the better to focus our attention on the matter at hand. Apart from occasional smoke machine and lighting effects, the cell where Gobodo-Madikizela and de Kock met for their interviews never alters, making the actors’ every movement and gesture all the more significant. At one point, after de Kock has shared a particularly painful story and breaks down crying, Gobodo-Madikizela reaches over to touch his hand, a gesture which takes on deep significance because it ruptures the emotional barrier Gobodo-Madikizela was trying to preserve between herself and de Kock. I couldn’t help drawing a comparison between this static set and that of the classic living room play, in which we as audience members are drawn in to overhear the most intimate and the most mundane conversations. As Gobodo-Madikizela and de Kock establish a rapport, we too feel more comfortable in their “living room,” which prepares us to hear the brutalities that de Kock describes in his interviews.

This play is an interrogation of what drives human beings to repeatedly perform acts of violent cruelty, and the investigation is all the more interesting because it is true: we are hearing de Kock’s genuine reflections on his actions, listening to an “evil” man self-analyze the roots of his “evilness.” Gobodo-Madikizela teases out several probable causes: a father who shouted at de Kock, childhood ostracism for his speech impediment and glasses, the addictive nature of violence, and his rewards for his cruel behavior from the system that was brainwashing him with apartheid ideology. Gobodo-Madikizela’s questions reveal the power of denial within human psychology; while de Kock would refute the idea that any one of these factors caused his behavior later in life, we, the rationalizing audience, are all too eager to pinpoint these as the factors that warped de Kock into the murderous criminal he became.

I was particularly touched by de Kock’s description of his single memory of true fear, the day his mother drove off from his childhood farm and he thought she was never coming back: “My mother stayed home and ran the chicken-farm. She was a gentle, kindly woman. She had a hard life. In fact there was one unforgettable day when she left home… She probably hoped it was for good. I watched the car drive off in a cloud of dust, and … I have never known fear like that.” There is a similar passage in The Grass is Singing, in which Mary tries to escape from the farm where she is isolated with her husband. Her great escape is foiled when she gets back into town and realizes she has changed so much that her former friends and colleagues no longer accept her in their circles, and so she docilely returns to her life of estranged depression. Both stories seem to echo the fact that there was no escape from the reality of apartheid, and it wreaked havoc on every South African, black or white, man or woman.

Gobodo-Madikizela’s interviews were possible as a part of her work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the story shares as many reflections on forgiveness as it does on the motivations behind de Kock’s cruelty. Gobodo-Madikizela says to de Kock, “They [the widows of 3 black policemen de Kock had a hand in killing] said that it was a great relief for them to know the truth. They can mourn properly now. You see…victims don’t want to go on living with hatred. So they are always looking for signs to lay down that burden. Your apology was that sign, so they forgave you.” In the wake of such a brutal tragedy, it feels nearly impossible to find the words to help people heal, but Gobodo-Madikizela has stirring insights, given her psychological background. Another line that stuck with me was: “I’d learned a lot from him. I’d learned that forgiveness is not forgetting, that on the contrary it springs from the vivid, present quality of traumatic memory.” Although Gobodo-Madikizela had originally tried to erect an emotional barrier between herself and de Kock in order to remain an impartial observer of his psychology, she discovers the impossibility of separating oneself from one’s emotions. This lesson feels just as essential as the one about forgiveness. Given that the violence of apartheid was perpetrated by humans, we can only begin to understand their actions by relating to them as humans – and, terrifying as it may be, by looking for those emotions within ourselves.

As Gobodo-Madikizela is leaving her last interview with de Kock, she says, “It’s very extraordinary to me that I never knew what you were thinking.” To which he replies, “There’s so many things about each other that we’ll never know.”  After we’ve just spent an hour and a half listening to deep, emotional truths from these two characters, this prospect is haunting, but absolutely correct. Therein lies the beauty of rendering this story on stage: we are able to listen to these people as ultimately unknowable characters, there to accept our projections and rationalizations of our present reality. Here in the USA, we are all too familiar with the near-weekly reminders of the continued aftermath of our country’s institutionalized racism. The parallels between our own once-segregated society and that of apartheid South Africa are undeniable, and this story walks a fine line between helping us understand historical motivations and demonstrating the unknowable quality of humans; ultimately, every individual has an imperfect understanding of themselves.

A Human Being Died That Night doesn’t give any easy answers, or even a sense of resolution, because there is none to be had. As de Kock says to Gobodo-Madikizela, “You know, Pumla, if you don’t see it, it’s invisible.” This forcefully honest story works to ensure that the horrors of apartheid will never become invisible by asking us to contemplate our history in an effort towards understanding.


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