Study Guide | Theater

A Human Being Died That Night


In June of 2015, a young man opened fire without warning at a Bible service in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When he was done, nine parishioners were dead, and the nation reacted in shock and horror at what was perhaps the worst of a recent spate of violent actions around the country taken against African-Americans. Unlike many of these other incidents, the motivation behind this one was clear; before opening fire, the gunman shouted explicitly racist remarks, saying to congregants, “You have to go.” As unbelievable as the incident itself was, perhaps most surprising was the response of most of Charleston’s African-American community, and in particular of many of the friends and relatives of the victims.

Instead of hatred and vengeance, they offered the shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, forgiveness.

According to accounts, a representative of the family of Ethel Lance, a 70-year-old grandmother who was among those killed, told Roof, “I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.” Mother Jones magazine reported that some of the victims' family members asked Roof to join them in a Bible service, to repent and to “change your ways no matter what happened to you.” Finally, after expressing her inability to process her anger at the loss of her son, the mother of one victim nonetheless asserted that “We have no room for hate. We have to forgive.”

Among the many questions raised by the incident in Charleston and its aftermath, two stand out in particular. The first is the nature of evil itself. When incidents like this occur, whether they involve the loss of one life, a handful of lives, or even thousands or millions of lives, we try to understand the motivations of those who commit such acts. Our first tendency is to arrive at the simple conclusion that these people are monsters, and are somehow inhuman—perhaps evil. The other question is how, as in the example of Charleston, some individuals and communities offer mercy and empathy in place of rage and revenge. What is it that enables some of us to find that forgiveness for those who have hurt us, or our loved ones? Perhaps it is because there is some belief in the adage, made famous by Dr. King, that an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. Or perhaps, on a deeper level, forgiving (while at the same time never forgetting) is absolutely essential if we are to achieve any kind of transformation as individuals and as a society.

This is, at its core, the conclusion reached by Dr. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, the South African-born, Harvard-educated psychiatrist whose experiences are recounted in A Human Being Died that Night. In her memoir, upon which the play is based, she describes to us what it was like to grow up and make her way as a young black woman in a time when her native land was in the grip of apartheid, the institutionalized racism that kept the white minority in power for over half a century through violence, intimidation, torture, and mass slaughter. In the wake of the end of apartheid in 1994, newly elected President Nelson Mandela took the bold step of establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose prime objective in investigating the horrors of apartheid was not vengeance, but rather healing and transformation so that the nation could move forward. Because of her life experience, her academic achievements, and her skills as a psychiatrist, Pumla was asked to serve on the TRC, an appointment she accepted with great pride and honor. In this role, she eventually came to interview the most notorious of the white South African counterterrorist leaders, Eugene de Kock, who was serving two life sentences for murder in a maximum-security facility in Pretoria. de Kock’s remorseless use of brutality and violence was so extreme that it had earned him the nickname “Prime Evil.” And in spite of all she had been through and all she had accomplished, little in her experience prepared Pumla for the encounters with this man, the personification of apartheid’s evil excesses, that are at the heart of her book and this play.

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