In 1810, a young South African woman named Saartjie was taken to Europe and displayed in a cage because of her un-European shape — specifically, her very large butt. She was referred to as the Venus Hottentot, and she was first shown off in a freak show, then by a doctor at a medical academy.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus tells Saartjie’s story by assembling various literary, historical and medical sources along with her own theatrical tale, reimagining a previously untold history. And now it has come to USC, running through Sunday at the Bing Theatre.
Director Anita Dashiell-Sparks said she was interested in the “history of objectification, specifically of the colored female body, [and] how we participate in that.”
The play poses important questions about humanity and exploitation, and Dashiell-Sparks leads a strong ensemble in a moving and thought-provoking production of Parks’ unconventional play.
Both Dashiell-Sparks and actress Shirley Norman stress the importance of giving a voice to a woman who was silenced. Norman poignantly gives Saartjie a voice and humanity through her performance as the Venus Hottentot.
Norman described Saartjie as being, “In every way, a lover of life,” and the actress sweetly captures her innocent excitement and curiosity. Even though she is paraded as a freak, Norman always exhibits a natural poise, providing Saartjie with an inherent dignity lacked by those who objectify her. There is a quiet power in her performance that sets her apart from her castmates without losing a sense of ensemble.
Curtis Scott brings a lively energy to the role of the Negro Resurrectionist, who serves as narrator.
“[The character is] trying to bring order when there is chaos and violence surrounding [the Venus],” Scott said.
His commanding presence becomes an anchor for the audience in this nonlinear play. His introductions to each scene prevent the audience from ever getting too lost in the story without stopping to consider its source or meaning. Whether reciting an autopsy report or interacting with Norman, Curtis brings charisma and compassion to the part.
The Mother Showman, played by Kate Williams, and the Baron Docteur, played by Joseph Orrach, are the two Europeans who essentially own Saartjie during the different phases of her life as the Venus Hottentot.
Both actors give complex performances that capture the contradiction of being both attracted to and repulsed by what they see as different from themselves. Despite her violent, abusive behavior toward Saartjie, the audience believes the Mother Showman when she says that Saartjie “always was my favorite child.”
During the Docteur’s medical speech on the Venus’s anatomy later in the play, Orrach’s quavering voice and stoic expression convey the Docteur’s inner conflict with objectifying the woman he supposedly loved.
The production’s greatest strength is its overall coherence in tone and purpose, along with the ensemble’s cohesion. There is a tangibly shared energy and vision among the actors that holds together Parks’ fractured narrative. While each of Mother Showman’s Eight Amazing Human Wonders has his own unique physicality, their movements work together to create a strong, unified presence onstage.
The actors perform amid a beautifully elaborate and functional set, designed by Vika Teplinskaya, that establishes the Venus’ world as a circus.
“There’s something we all can recognize in the circus. It welcomes you into the space,” Dashiell-Sparks said.
But this circus is dark and eerie, conveying that there is something wrong in this recognizable world. The colors of the circus are dulled, and gray paintings of leering spectators frame the stage. A reflective silhouette of the Venus is raised in the center of the stage, constantly reminding the audience of the shape of her body that made her so objectified, while forcing the viewer to see himself reflected in her.
Dashiell-Sparks stresses the importance of drawing parallels to the present. By playing songs such as Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” or Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” during scene changes, she effectively confronts the audience with the modern problem of female exploitation in pop culture.
“A lot of people don’t realize where it came from,” Dashiell-Sparks said. “Saartjie’s story is where it came from.”
Norman agreed with her director’s thought.
“The sexuality that was placed on her body [has] trickled down to today, from plastic surgery to music videos,” she said.
After reading the play, Dashiell-Sparks says she was floored by the fact that Saartjie’s complete objectification was considered a valid form of entertainment.
“I was struck to my core,” she said. “How does this happen? How is it allowed to happen?”
Venus encourages the audience to truly examine and acknowledge those questions.
“This is part of your humanity,” Scott said.
It might not be an easy acknowledgement to make, but the powerful singular vision of cast and crew makes watching Venus not just an entertaining experience but an important one.