by Carol Rocamora
A young woman (black and beautiful) enters and crosses to center stage. She’s met by a man wearing tails and top hat, carrying a lumpy cloth object. He hands it to the woman. She strips, and before our astonished eyes, dons a body stocking featuring enormously exaggerated buttocks and breasts. Though she’ll wear that skin with pride and assurance throughout the play, the consequences are devastating.
The play is Venus by the inimitable Suzan-Lori Parks – and the story she tells is an amazing one, all the more so because it’s true. “Venus Hottentot” is the name given to a poor young South African woman (Sarah Baartman, c. 1789 – 1815), a descendant of the Khoikhoi tribe, who was discovered by a British profiteer and lured to England to join a traveling sideshow, where her unusual physical attributes were displayed. It’s the shocking, disturbing story of a woman of color, and how her body becomes exploited for commercial profit as well as dispassionate medical research.
Lear deBessonet directs this revival of Parks’s 1996 play with flair and confidence, capitalizing on its numerous styles – including Brechtian story-telling, vaudeville, and surreal absurdism. Matt Saunder’s lively set features a vaudevillian stage, upon which a company of ten plays a variety of roles, including participants in the Eight Amazing Human Wonders freak show, colorfully costumed by Emilio Sosa.
Narrated by “The Negro Resurrectionist” (Kevin Mambo), we follow the fate of Venus (a touching Zainab Jah) from Africa to England where she’s taken on an infamous tour. Under the stern eye of the cruel “Mother Showman” (Randy Danson), she’s a welcome ninth addition to the sideshow. “Her figure is distorted beyond European standards,” her handlers boast. At one point, Venus is arrested, caged, and tried for having “exhibited herself disgracefully.” She pleads to the authorities: “I came here black – give me the chance to leave here white.” Then, a gallant white doctor (John Ellison Conlee) swoops in and saves her, showering her with gifts, offering to take her to Paris and lead a life of luxury.
As Parks reimagines the story, they fall deeply in love. But the doctor has other designs on Venus – specifically, medical ones. He assembles a team of scientists to examine her extraordinary physical features, and plans an extensive post-mortem anatomical study. Devastated and abandoned, Venus falls mortally ill. Parks leavens these tragic turns of events with surreal moments – such as Venus’s touching speech about “The History of Chocolate” (her favorite gift from the doctor who exploits and discards her).
At times, Venus reminded me of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, with its shared theme of human disfigurement and cultural tolerance.
But in the end, Venus is a unique creation by a unique playwright with an urgent voice. Women of color and how they are viewed throughout history is a theme that runs throughout Parks’s impressive oeuvre. In Venus, standards of beauty, the dignity of the female form, and a woman’s control over her body are additional themes that Parks explores with fearlessness and determination – along with white domination over blacks and male subjugation of females.
At one point toward the end of the play, a character refers to “The Disrememberment of Venus Hottentot.” Don’t worry – thanks to Suzan-Lori Parks, that won’t happen. We’ll remember her Venus as a woman who brings dignity to her goddess-given name – and a woman who reminds us of the essential ownership of her own body.
Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Lear deBessonet, at Signature Theatre Center, now through June 4.
Photos: Joan Marcus