Voyeurs De Venus at Chicago Dramatists
Tutterow, Russ, TheatreForum
At Chicago Dramatists (The Playwrights' Theatre, as we say), when I choose plays for our season of productions, I really have only one criterion-select the best, strongest plays out of those we have helped to develop by our (currently) 31 Resident Playwrights and 240 Network Playwright members.
Lydia R. Diamond has been a Resident Playwright with Chicago Dramatists for about eight years, during which time she has developed at least four full-length plays and some shorter pieces through our programming. She has been an important artist to us and has taken an active, generous interest in her fellow playwrights' development. I have introduced her to a number of theatres and her career received a great boost when her play, A Gift Horse, won the Theodore Ward Award for African American playwrights from Columbia College Chicago a few years ago. That led to a production of that play at the Goodman Theatre, and other theatres started to pay her some serious attention.
One of those theatres was Steppenwolf which, among other things, awarded her a commission (the first of several from Steppenwolf). Lydia asked me to read a very early draft of that commissioned play about historical figure Saartjie Baartman, an African woman from 1810 or so, known as The Hottentot Venus and displayed in Europe as a side show and medical school exhibit. A middle-aged white guy who had spent little-to-no time outside of a theatre, I had a vague memory of the name Hottentot Venus but was unaware there was an actual person behind the name or of the derogatory racial nature of the name.
I remember Lydia's early draft of Voyeurs de Venus as an explosion of images and ideas that I hoped she would find some way to shape into a coherent play. I found it immense and baffling, so I tried simply to react to it, not critique it. A couple of years later, Lydia had a draft of the play that Steppenwolf read and she asked me to put it into one of our public readings series at Chicago Dramatists. Steppenwolf's Director of New Play Development, Edward Sobel, directed the reading, which showed the play to be a remarkable and ambitious work. It seemed to me that Lydia had purposely painted it on a large canvas, so to speak, since it was a Steppenwolf commission. It was a play that could showcase (and be showcased by) a large theatre with a generous production budget and access to the finest artists in the world.
Steppenwolf did not pick up its option to produce Voyeurs de Venus, so I eagerly jumped at the chance to produce it at Chicago Dramatists. …