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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 15, 2017

Zainab Jah
Photo by Joan Marcus

Many years before Joseph "the Elephant Man" Merrick was hauled around London to be gawked at as the "freak du jour," a young black South African woman named Saartjie Baartman was lured from her home to England with promises of riches and fame. Instead, she wound up on display as "The Venus Hottentot," objectified for her outsized buttocks and touted as the living embodiment of the "missing link" between animals and humans. Intrigued by Saartjie's story, award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Pulitzer Prize, Obie, MacArthur "Genius" Grant), wrote Venus, a three-ring circus of a play, first produced in 1996 and opening today in a revival at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

As a theatrical work, Venus asks much of its audience. The central story of Saartjie Baartman is straightforward enough, but the playwright has chosen to present her narrative through multiple lenses that set things whirling head-spinningly in diverse directions, encompassing naturalism, satire, surrealism, absurdism, choral recitations, random pieces of a play-within-the-play, and political, historic, and medical discourse.

You might want to think of the circus metaphor in considering how all of these elements fit together. In the center ring is the story of Saartjie (usually referred to as "the girl" or "Venus"), played by a tough, proud and clear-eyed Zainab Jah, most recently seen on Broadway as the captive-turned-rebel soldier in Eclipsed. As the play opens, Ms. Jah enters and dons a body suit simulating the nearly nude contours of her character's figure, with accentuated buttocks and breasts. She then takes her place on display in the middle of the arena-like set. From there, we telescope backwards in order to follow Saartjie from the time she is talked into leaving her home and going to London, "a big town a boat ride away, where the streets are paved with gold."

What she finds waiting for her, however, is not gold but a place in a "freak show," operated by Mother-Showman (Randy Danson). The year is 1810, three years after the slave trade was abolished in England, but slave-like conditions remain for many. When Saartjie joins the "eight human wonders," she is treated gruffly and shabbily, receiving just enough food, shelter, and a small allowance to keep the Abolitionists at bay. We look on as Londoners come to gape at, and, for a few extra coins, to fondle "the girl's" buttocks, "an ass to write home about, well worth the admission price," as one of them puts it.

In her portrayal of Saartjie, Ms. Jah gives her character the dignity and sense of self-value that allow her to rise above the cruelty and prurience of the situation. She sees herself as the star of the freak show and behaves accordingly, demanding top billing, improved living conditions, and more money. When Mother-Showman demurs, Saartjie leaves and falls into a relationship with a wealthy, married white man, the Baron Docteur (John Ellison Conlee), who sweeps her off to France.

Act II opens with a dramatic change of scene, taking place mostly in the Baron Docteur's fashionable upscale quarters in Paris, a gilded cage that replaces the iron one where Saartjie had been on display. For a time, the Baron Docteur treats her like an adored mistress, dressing her in beautiful gowns and doting on her. In her mind, she sees them "setting tongues wagging for the rest of the century" and meeting with Napoleon to discuss "the Negro question." Eventually, however, her lover wearies of her as he grows more and more concerned about how their relationship is affecting his standing among his peers. Ultimately, he leaves her to die an ignominious death.

As a biographical study, the play does a good job of bringing Saartjie's story to the fore. But over the course of the evening, things become rather less coherent through the disruptive insertion at seemingly random intervals of two tangential sets of materials. Taking place in what you might think of as "Sideshow One" of our metaphoric circus is a series of short scenes from what appears to be a courtly comedy of manners, a parody performed by several of the play's seven-member chorus. This play-within-the-play is loosely based on Saartjie's story but features a white aristocratic woman as Venus, and, of course, removes any sense of the cruelty she endured. Meanwhile, in "Sideshow Two," another group of interpolations consists of bits of medical reports on Saartjie's anatomy, including a formal presentation by the Baron Docteur that takes place during the intermission. These deliberate interruptions jolt the narrative and remind us of the artifice involved in the play's design, even as they encourage us to mull over the play's broader themes.

Throughout, Zainab Jah, Randy Danson, and John Ellison Conlee do a very good job of breathing life into their roles, and Kevin Mambo manages things nicely as a sort of ringmaster, presiding over the complicated interactions among the varying components. The chorus members provide additional commentary and effectively play a number of smaller roles. Matt Saunders has provided a fine design, with the production's circus arena-like set in Act I and the glamorous boudoir set for Act II.

Venus has much of significance to say about the treatment of women and blacks and "freaks." But it is a decidedly challenging play to pull off without losing its focus, and director Lear deBessonet has not been entirely successful at balancing all of the jarring elements contained within the experimental script. There is an ironic, Brechtian tone to much of the proceedings, but the dizzying and clashing styles challenge our ability to immerse ourselves in Saartjie's all-too-human story.

Through June 4
The Irene Diamond Stage, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
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