There is a curious sign outside of the theater where Suzan-Lori Parks’s play Venus is playing that says the production contains “simulated nudity,” and this is explained right away when Zainab Jah makes her entrance and dons a body suit that gives her the curves of the historical personage she is playing, Saartjie Baartman, a South African girl who was exhibited as “The Venus Hottentot” in the early nineteenth century.
Venus is a mid-period work for Parks that was first produced in 1996 before she won the Pulitzer Prize for her best-known play Topdog/Underdog in 2002. It requires a large cast of eleven performers, most of whom play chorus-type roles that range from denizens of a freak show to judges in a courtroom. The chorus members speak directly to the audience in unison a lot, and they do songs and recitations of facts about Baartman. These theatrical conventions have the effect of distancing us from her story, which is in many ways an unrelentingly brutal and depressing one.
Parks sometimes attempts to try to find unexpected angles to Baartman’s situation, such as a moment of sympathy from the female boss of the freak show (Randy Danson) after Baartman confesses that drunken men keep getting into her room and raping her. Jah has been tasked with playing a woman who is exploited and degraded in ways that are nearly beyond the powers of human comprehension, and she also tries to find all-too-brief moments when Baartman can show some agency and some pleasure, but for most of Venus she has to register varying shades of violation and humiliation while the flat tone of the material makes us observe her from the outside.
Right before the end of Venus, the house lights went up while the actors were playing a scene, and I assumed this was part of the performance, but when the scene was done we were ordered to evacuate. Firemen came in to investigate the premises, and the end of the performance was cancelled. I had been sent the script of Venus, and so I read the very end of it at home. Poor Baartman gets sent to prison and dies there, which is exactly what a doctor (John Ellison Conlee) who had purchased her wanted. Parks gives Baartman a few quite good monologues about her existence at the end of the play, the last of which concludes, “Love’s corpse stands on show in museum. Please visit.”
Baartman’s remains were indeed on show at a Paris museum until 1974, and these were finally moved back and buried in South Africa in 2002. Parks tries to give this woman a voice of her own at the end, but entirely too much of the play has gone by before the last monologues, one of which is a consideration of the power of chocolate. To be fair, if Baartman’s story were done with no distance at all it might be close to impossible to watch, but we are nearly always kept at a remove here from her experience, and we need to feel closer to her throughout in order to begin to understand what happened to her.
Photos by Joan Marcus