May 31, 2015

The words are sober, almost clinical: “A Human Being Died That Night.” The play that bears this title, on the other hand, reveals in searing, sometimes heart-rending detail the atrocities committed by the South African police forces during the terrible years of apartheid. This quietly gripping and superbly acted drama by Nicholas Wright, a Fugard Theater production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through June 21, is adapted from the book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission was established after the end of apartheid in part to hold accountable the perpetrators of the violence used against participants in the anti-apartheid movement. Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela, portrayed by Noma Dumezweni, is one of the two principal characters in the play, which is mainly set in a cell in Pretoria Central Prison. The other is Eugene de Kock (Matthew Marsh), the head of a covert counterterrorism unit responsible for the killing and torture of dozens, who became one of the most notorious of the men brought to trial. He was given the nickname Prime Evil, and we learn that at the time Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela began a series of visits to Mr. de Kock he was serving two life sentences plus 212 years for “political crimes.” Eugene at first doesn’t understand why Pumla has come, although he cordially welcomes her, making an awkward joke comparing their encounter to the movie “The Silence of the Lambs.” She says she specializes in lectures on “issues of forgiveness and reconciliation,” and was intrigued when she witnessed Eugene ask to apologize privately to the wives of three black policemen whose killings he was involved in.