Review by Tulis McCall
May 18, 2017
For those of you looking for a fluffy night out at the theatre, where all you have to do is sit back and bask in the good work bestowed upon you by others – you are directed to swan right past the entrance to Venus at Signature Theatre and go directly to the bar. Suzan-Lori Parks does not write for the passive observer. Venus, her most recent production (written 20 years ago) makes you sit up and pay attention – even if you don’t want to.
Now, the only reason you would not want to pay attention is that this is a sad, even horrific, story of how far a civilized society can go to disrupt what they do not understand. Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman, (an exquisite Zainab Jah) was an African woman who was duped (the old “streets of gold” story) into traveling to London where she was put on display as a freak – The Venus Hottentot. At that time – the early 1800’s – although slavery had been officially banned, a favorite form of entertainment for folks with too much time on their hands was to pay money to gawk at people less fortunate than they in every way. Freaks of all sorts – those with extra legs or arms or heads, those with truncated noses, the trans-everything. And then there was Sarah, whose only crime was her large posterior and her enormous breasts. The look that white women were actively seeking by means of corsets, bustiers and bustles was considered abnormal and abhorrent when it occurred au naturelle on the body of an African.
Parks traces Sarah on an abbreviated journey. Sarah, we learn, is no slouch and learns quickly that she is worth a portion of the money being taken in by the boss. That is the only good bit of news in her life. We see her with her fellow freaks, but only as a performer/prisoner. There is no camaraderie or succor to be found backstage. Each performer is all razzle dazzle in the footlights and invisible off stage.
It is not until Sarah is “rescued” by a doctor-doctor (John Ellison Conlee) that a small glimpse of light shines through the story. The rescue comes in the form of a new cage: a beautiful home in Paris where Sarah is set up as mistress to Le Baron Docteur. Although she is allowed to roam about the city and learn French, society never comes calling. While le docteur professes undying love, he also reminds Sarah that he is married, and propriety is propriety even in Paris.
There is one other teensie factoid that no one runs by Sarah. Le Docteur is, after all, a scientist. And this is an era of stadium seating in the operating theatres of medicine. While love does exist, it is not strong enough to out-maneuver desire. In this case the desire is the medical history that will be made when Sarah’s body is dissected. What matters love in comparison to fame?
Ms. Parks openly offers the story of Sarah as fact, and Kevin Mambo (The Negro Ressurectionist) is a compelling narrator. As well, this is a mighty cast who play so many characters it makes your head spin. Each performance is finely tuned, and the direction of Lear DeBessonet brings the entire production to full throttled life. As to the veracity of the affection shared by Sarah and Le Docteur – who knows? No one was there to record it, and Pence and Sessions were nowhere around. Whatever the facts, it is this element of the story that brings us into Sarah’s heart and makes the outcome all the more shattering. Without the love we could sit back in our first world seats and then tsk-tsk all the way out the door untouched by this tale. By including it, Parks pulls us into the pool of emotion, where treading water is the only way to survive. Where Sarah’s question, “Love me?” reaches us across the centuries.
After her body was dissected visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view Sarah’s brain, skeleton and genitalia as well as a plaster cast of her body until the 1970’s. In 2002 Nelson Mandela succeeded in repatriating her remains to South Africa. One has the feeling, however, that she was never fully laid to rest.
"The sexual aspect of “Venus” was less evident when it was staged in New York at the Public Theater in 1996, in a distractingly mannered production directed by Richard Foreman. This latest reincarnation has a new clarity that illuminates both the script’s prescience and its flaws. Directed by Lear deBessonet, the play reveals itself to be an unexpectedly traditional piece by the standards of Ms. Parks, whose earlier works leaned toward the hermetically surreal."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks puts her own fictionalized and stylized spin on actual events in her 1996 play, “Venus,” back now in an absorbing revival at Signature Center."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"In the two decades since its Public Theater debut, Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus has lost none of its power to unsettle and appall. If anything, the story of Saartjie Baartman’s exploitation at the hands of early-19th-century human traffickers—some venal, some high-minded—has gained in shock value. Its current revival, directed by Lear deBessonet as part of Parks’s retrospective residency at the Signature, is devastating."
Sandy MacDonald for Time Out New York
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