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Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
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.
A young Khoikhoi woman from southern Africa, Baartman (Zainab Jah) traveled to London in 1810 with visions of earning a mint as a “dancing African princess”; instead, dubbed the Hottentot Venus, she became a celebrated attraction at the freak shows then in vogue. The focus was on her formidable, steatopygous rump (conveyed here by a skin-toned bodysuit that is donned in plain sight): poke-bait to curiosity seekers of all castes. At the Venus’s unveiling, a septet of ensemble cast members are done up as Crayola-coiffed toffs. Who are the real freaks here?
If the first act seems mannered and arch, beware: You’re being set up. Returning from intermission, you’ll come upon John Ellison Conlee as the Baron Docteur—a composite character based on comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier—reading excerpts from a postmortem report. Parks extrapolates the exotic-erotic nature of the Venus Hottentot phenomenon into a sexual relationship between the scientist and his subject. Act Two begins in a dreamy Paris hotel room, where the doctor plies his subject with bonbons as she teasingly, touchingly implores (in the face of contrary evidence): “Love me?”
Executing a 180 from her turn as the cold-blooded mercenary in Eclipsed, Jah brings an unaffected dignity to Baartman’s quest, even as she begs for validation. We hear this naive foreigner as she might imagine herself to be speaking: in a clear, cultivated voice amid a barrage of unspeakable indignities. It falls to the “Negro Resurrectionist” narrator-balladeer (played movingly by Kevin Mambo) to explicate the reality of Baartman’s tragic career: She spent a mere four years onstage, in virtual bondage, before achieving posthumous star billing as an anthropological exhibit.
Signature Theatre Company (Off Broadway). By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Lear deBessonet. With Zainab Jah, Kevin Mambo, John Ellison Conlee. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission. Through June 4.