By Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed by Lear deBessonet
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.4.17
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street
by Maria Paz Alegre on 5.15.17
Adam Green, Birgit Huppuch, Patrena Murray, Julian Rozzell, Tony Torn, Reynaldo Piniella,
Hannah Cabell, and Zainab Jah in Venus. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Come one, come all! The true story of the "Venus Hottentot," the woman who will make your heart race until it breaks.
In Signature’s revival of Suzan-Lori Parks' Venus, the Roman goddess of love and desire is somewhat made flesh. Actress Zainab Jah begins the production by walking center stage in her underwear and carefully dressing in a skin-tight, voluptuous nude bodysuit, resembling the famous physique of the eponymous main character—Saartjie Baartman aka The Venus Hottentot. Although the audience is immediately made aware that Jah’s curves are artificial and composed of elastic and padding, it does not make the physical molestation of her character any less disturbing.
Any feelings of ill-ease or disgust are fitting considering the true and tragic story of Saartjie Baartman’s life. Born poor and black in colonial South Africa, young Saartjie is enticed to travel to England after hearing false promises of wealth and fame. Upon arrival she is raped, sold, and made to perform as a sideshow freak in London. She is the dancing black Venus, an African princess whose naked curves are an offense to "enlightened Europeans" who don't hesitate in paying a tuppence to gawk and grope her body. Exploitation and manipulation continue as Baartman is passed from one set of white hands to another. The irony of Baartman’s servitude, in spite of slavery having been outlawed three years prior to her arrival in England, is not lost on the audience. It is a fact parroted again and again by a Greek chorus of actors. Accompanying the chorus and Baartman’s journey is “the Negro Resurrectionist” (the golden-voiced Kevin Mambo), who both supports and betrays Baartman throughout the show.
Zainab Jah's portrayal of Saartjie Baartman is luminous. Jah has delicately crafted a sympathetic character, making it very painful to watch her fragile innocence and faith shattered again and again by a chorus of the grotesque and absurd. In one memorable scene the “Chorus of the Court” refuses to deliver a verdict upon her poor living and working conditions, thereby absolving themselves of guilt for her inevitable tragedy. Proud of their ability to circumvent the law, they literally pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves for their ineffectiveness. Baartman appears to be the only sane character in this ship of fools, making her demise all the more pitiable and devastating.
Parks has a deft touch for writing prose which flows and flies with lyrical wit, often resulting in a searing indictment of Baartman’s predators. Interspersed throughout Baartman’s story are scenes from an actual pantomime production which existed during Baartman’s life entitled For the Love of the Venus. In it, a dubious playboy rejects a highborn fiancé in favor of courting an exotic black, “Venus Hottentot.” His rejected fiancé makes a point to win him back by impersonating Baartman, hiding her white skin tone and parading about in the high fashions of the day—a hooped skirt which creates the illusion of large hips and ample buttocks. When Baartman herself is finally adorned in similar elegant fashions, her golden dress is stripped from her body by anatomists and it is revealed that her clothes needed no artificial enhancements to create her full-figured shape. The notion that her body disgusted Europeans and their standard of beauty becomes both laughable and hypocritical.
Suzan-Lori Parks has stated that she wrote Venus because “I love Saartjie Baartman and I think she’s beautiful and I wanted to give her a show. I wanted her to be a star of a show.” Supporting her show is the powerful director Lear deBessonet as well as an expert staff of scenic and costume designers (Matt Saunders and Emilio Sosa). In this dazzling production, Parks and deBessonet transform the stage into the Georgian era, boldly taking hold of the historical narrative and refusing to cede it back, giving Baartman’s life the sympathetic perspective she richly deserves. Parks does not allow the audience to remember Saartjie Baartman as the curvy black freak she had been marketed as. Instead, she is buxom and she is also beautiful. Parks' Baartman is a smart, beguiling woman who deserved so much better than what the world gave her. It is here that the woman billed as “Miss Saartjie Baartman, aka The Girl, and later The Venus Hottentot,” shines, receiving in this production the love Venus has always craved and the respect she never received in her own lifetime.
(Venus plays at the Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, through June 4, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 15 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30; Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $30 and are available at signaturetheatre.org or by calling 212-244-7529. )
Venus is by Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the life of Saartjie Baartman. Directed by Lear deBessonet. Choreography is by Danny Mefford. Scenic Design is by Matt Saunders. Costume Design is by Emilio Sosa. Lighting Design is by Justin Townsend. Sound Design and Original Music is by Brandon Wolcott. Music & Lyrics for Original Songs are by Suzan-Lori Parks. Wig, Hair & Makeup Design is J. Jared Janas. Fight Director is Thomas Schall. Production Stage Manager is Evangeline Rose Whitlock. Assistant Stage Manager is Jason Pacella.
The cast is Hannah Cabell, John Ellison Conlee, Randy Danson, Adam Green, Birgit Huppuch, Zainab Jah, Kevin Mambo, Patrena Murray, Reynaldo Piniella, Julian Rozzell, and Tony Torn.