Encore Michigan

Outvisible’s ‘Human Being’ powerfully rekindles the lessons of apartheid

Review October 01, 2017 David Kiley

ALLEN PARK, Mich.–Sometimes a play takes you off guard. Sometimes a work will not hit you on the head, but rather gradually unfold on you. Such is the case with A Human Being Died That Night, now being performed at Outvisible Theatre.

The surface story is this: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a coordinator of victims’ public hearings in the Western Cape in South Africa. She has gone to interview Eugene de Kock in prison where he is serving a double life sentence plus 212 years for numerous crimes, including murders on behalf of the pro-apartheid interests in South Africa in the 1980s and 90s. In short, Pumla is there to try and find out what motivated de Kock to do the heinous things he did to her people.

The events of this story took place thirty and forty years ago, and the interviews took place in the 90s. In a world dominated by fleeting social media interaction, nuclear threats from North Korea and an American President who runs a government like the reality show he formerly hosted, it would be easy to decide that a two-person play about Apartheid is not going to make the ol’ priority list.

If only it was that simple. In case you missed it, the U.S. has its own version of apartheid that is alive and all too robust. People of color in the U.S., by any sane evaluation, do not enjoy the same rights and opportunities or representation that white Americans enjoy. African Americans are about 13% of the population, but they make up 37% of prison inmates–six times the incarceration rate of whites. One of every three African-American males can expect to spend time in prison. There are more African-American males in prison than are enrolled in colleges and universities. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.

And just this past week, we are seeing the situation that confronts Latinx citizens and non-citizens in the U.S every day–an extension of the priority given whites over non-whites. Puerto Rico, an island populated by U.S. citizens (nearly half of Americans do not know people born in Puerto Rico are US citizens), has been treated like foreigners at best after the devastation on the island (add the US Virgin Islands to this point)–as if its not the U.S.’s responsibility.

Division is deep and fierce in the U.S., and increasingly it is over issues of race. And when governments (federal and state) are complicit, a state of apartheid begins to grow.

Take what you will from this story. But the two actors at work here do a simply wonderful job of delivering what is on the pages of their script. Angela G. King plays Pumla. She is every inch the educated South African black woman, confident and rock-ribbed enough to be succeeding in her society after divorcing her husband. She is strong, with a stiff spine, much needed to confront the man she knows to be a monster when she begins the process. Her accent is spot on, and consistent throughout the show. King has just enough Eleanor Roosevelt in her body language and resolute, confident speech cadences, but also allows herself to care about de Kock as a human being. The balance is a high-wire act that she more than pulls off.

Robert Schorr understands de Kock, and clearly did his homework. Yes, de Kock is a monster. But let’s not forget the story of Frankenstein, who had a backstory that makes us care about him. In the case of de Kock, he may well have had bad brain wiring that impacted his capacity for empathy, but there were, and are, powerful and sophisticated forces at work who are trained to identify such people and throw gasoline on the sparks of that bad wiring instead of trying to help. Ever hear of  Steve Bannon? If you believe de Kock’s story and defense, and not everyone will or did, he did what he did as part of belonging to a tribe that worked very hard to make him believe that rising black power in South Africa was a very bad thing for him, his family and the future of the country. Some of those forces that worked on him had the power and authority of the sitting government. Schorr’s de Kock is part well-worn, experienced, competent killer who can talk about his deeds like a plumber talks about solving a backed up pipe. But it’s hard not to believe him when he talks about his self-reflection on the “why” of what he did, the remorse and the bewilderment over why the forces of authority who he did these crimes for are not also sitting in the hole with him.

Schorr, too, masters the South African accent, which is so important to making this story sit up in our present. I know a South African man about Schorr’s age, and if I turned my head away, it was as if I was listening to him…a native speaker.

Director Adriane Galea should not only be commended for choosing risky material that won’t likely pack her small theater, but for casting it so well. Outvisible’s space is intimate, and makes the story, which takes place in a prison all the more impactful.

If apartheid in South Africa seems like a distant memory that you don’t have the mental bandwidth or RAM to delve into, give it some more thought. De Kock has a line in the play that says it all. “If you don’t see it, it’s invisible.”

The issues in this play are not invisible. They are in every city and town in America today. And as this play, and these two actors, prove, amazing things can happen when two thoughtful, mindful people sit down and talk to one another in the hopes of learning from another point of view. If only.

Click here for show days, times and details.