BWW Review: Suzan-Lori Parks' Devastating VENUS Explores the Tragedy of Saartjie Baartman

Traditionally, the human beings with uncommon attributes who are featured as carnival side-show attractions can hold a certain degree of power in their profession. It is their indisputable reality that adds an illusion of legitimacy to the flim-flam and shenanigans that fill out the rest of the show. Those who may appear to audiences as the most pitiable and exploited might very well be the ones taking in the biggest cuts of the profits.

BWW Review: Suzan-Lori Parks' Devastating VENUS Explores the Tragedy of Saartjie Baartman
Zainab Jah and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

This is a lesson that's gradually learned by the central character of Suzan-Lori Parks' devastating 1996 Obie-winning drama, Venus, who is willing to endure public objectification and racist exploitation in hopes that it will make her rich and famous.

The play is inspired by the life of Saartjie Baartman, an African women who, by European standards, possessed such fascinatingly large buttocks that she attracted mobs seeking lascivious thrills when billed as "The Hottentot Venus."

Balancing pathos, power and enthusiastic sensuality, Zainab Jah shows us the complex woman behind the stage figure that fascinates white customers with her "primitive" abandon.

But Parks has something trickier in mind than a standard biography. Director Lear deBessonet's perfectly cold and tense production begins with Jah making a quiet, unemotional ritual out of putting on a padded flesh-toned suit replicating Baartman's figure. More than just an actor getting into costume, the staging suggests the morning beauty ritual of any woman, and a feeling of having a myriad of worthy qualities covered inside attention-getting physical attributes

Performed in short scenes within a cynical carnival, the play is hosted by an archly welcoming Kevin Mambo. As a character named The Negro Resurrectionist, he provides facts and footnotes revealing hard truths, such as the appalling way Baartman achieved even more notoriety after her death in 1815 than she did during her short stay in England.

Promised fame and fortune as a "Dancing African Princess," Baartman is brought to England by a well-dressed and well-mannered freak show producer (Randy Danson), but arrives to find out that her contract has been sold and that she's now employed by the gruff and demanding Mother-Showman (Danson again), who makes her the separate-admission main attraction of her 8 Human Wonders show, assuring astounded men that she loves having her ample bottom poked and caressed by generous customers.

Baartman plays her role and knows her worth, negotiating for a higher percentage of the take. Her rising fame then attracts the attention of a marriEd French Baron Docteur (John Ellison Conlee), who makes both a mistress and a scientific study of her.

BWW Review: Suzan-Lori Parks' Devastating VENUS Explores the Tragedy of Saartjie Baartman
Kevin Mambo (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Though not finding him to be the most exciting lover, Baartman enjoys staying in his luxurious hotel room, being fed luscious bon-bons and being the center of attention when his scientific associates come to observe and measure her proportions.

While the docteur professes love for her, he's also looking forward to when he can more thoroughly examine her body after her death.

Periodically, actors rush downstage to play out scenes from a silly 19th Century melodrama of Parks' invention, "For the Love of the Venus," where a proper gentleman dares to love a woman beneath his station.

But even in these comic scenes, Venus, to its credit, is aggressively unsentimental, so when Baartman continually prompts her lover to demonstrate his affection with her naïve inquiry, "Love me?," the tragedy is heartbreaking.

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