When Saartjie Baartman (Zainab Jah), later known as “Venus Hottentot,” first walks onstage, she carries with her a skin-colored body suit. This repurposed leotard transforms her figure into that of the woman who, because of her large buttocks, was exhibited in freak show attractions in the early nineteenth century. This is, as far as I can tell, a moment that is absent from Suzan-Lori Parks’ script for Venus, but it is a profound and sobering moment. By revealing the seams of the production, director Lear deBessonet emphasizes the constructed nature of the character herself, who certainly survives in our memories more as a creature of the European imagination rather than a full-fledged human being. You could even say that Ms. Jah enters as Saartjie Baartman and, after putting on the suit, emerges as Venus Hottentot.
Though two women were in fact exhibited as “Venus Hottenhot” between 1810 and 1829, Ms. Parks’ play does not take its cues from history, an appropriate move since that history is no doubt inextricably linked to the white gaze. Instead, she invents freely, following Saartjie (or “Sarah”) as she moves from South African cleaning woman to English celebrity, first in the carnival circuit and later as a medical oddity. As played by Ms. Jah, Sarah is not entirely unwilling in her own objectification; the seductiveness of American capitalism apparently does not completely wane even when the product is one’s own body. Indeed, when she first hears “The Chorus of the 8 Human Wonders,” to which she will add a ninth, she responds not with concern but amusement, gaily smiling and clapping along with the exploitation-cum-entertainment like any other member of the audience. It is a rich performance marked by an inscrutable coyness: “I tell them what they want to hear,” she says in an aside, and we are left wondering how much she is referring to the other characters and how much she is referring to us.
Admittedly, I can at times find Ms. Parks’ elliptical, musical style frustrating, untethered as it is from any narrative center. But with Venus, she places this within a more conventional frame, allowing for a balance of artifice and emotional satisfaction. This series of thirty-one short scenes, both fractured and cohesive, comes together as its own sort of carnival, one in which our history is borne naked before our eyes and we are left, with the aid of a Joel Grey-like emcee (Kevin Mambo), to assemble the pieces.