The Signature Theatre Company’s exploration and re-examination of the career of Suzan-Lori Parks continues with director Lear deBessonet striking revival of the writer’s 1996 Obie-winning play “Venus, which is dominated by a brilliant performance by Tony nominee Zainab Jah (“Eclipsed’).
She plays Saartje Baqrtman – a young South African woman who gained brief fame (and infamy) in 19th-century England as a sideshow attraction called the “Hottenot Venus.” Bartman’s wide-bottomed figure makes her a simultaneous object of lust and disgust among the white upper classes, a fact that she both chafes at, yet takes advantage of to achieve financial gain. So while the play’s setting may be over 200 years ago, it makes us look with fresh eyes and a clear mind at such contemporary issues as racism and gender objectification.
Baartman, whom Jah embues with a fierce intelligence and self-confidence, even believes she has gotten the upper hand when she is taken in (aka bought) by a French doctor (the excellent John Ellison Conlee). He is both enraptured by her, and unbeknownst to her, planning to kill her and use her unusual body to gain his own fame in the world of medical academia. (Matt Saunders deftly accomplishes a scene change at intermission from a seedy British side show venue to the doctor’s elegant Parisian bedroom).
All of this plays out via Parks’ unusual style, which includes a “narrator” known as the Negro Resurrectionist (a fine Kevin Mambo), who occasionally sings, recites “historical” footnotes, and reads stage directions; semi-staged excepts from a faux 19th-century play called “The Art of Venus”; and sections of dialogues that are unnecessarily repetitious or oddly absurd (notably, a courtroom sequence when Baartman is on trial) delivered by a “chorus” of actors. (Among the supporting cast, only the veteran actress Randy Danson makes any real impact as the sideshow operator and a wily school friend of the doctor’s.)
Most importantly, one can leave the theater arguing just how much Baartman is truly a victim or a semi-willing party to her own demise. It’s a question without easy answers, but one worth asking, especially as we think of our own world today.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Hannah Cabell, John Ellison Conlee, Randy Danson, Adam Green, Birgit Huppuch, Zainab Jah, Kevin Mambo, Patrena Murray, Reynaldo Piniella, Julian Rozzell, Tony Torn
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036