Academic journal article TheatreForum

Venus Embodied: Performing the Role of Sartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks' Play Venus

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Venus Embodied: Performing the Role of Sartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks' Play Venus

Article excerpt

Sartjie (Sarah) Baartman was born around 1790 in South Africa. A descendent of the Khoisan tribe native to the Eastern Cape, she left her home for England in a dubious partnership with businessmen Alexander Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar. Once in London, Cezar exhibited Baartman as a "freak" in Picadilly Circus under the appellation "The Hottentot Venus." She was depicted as primitive, hypersexual, and anatomically anomalous because of her (by European standards) large posterior. She became famous. From Sartjie Baartman, we may draw a direct line to the bustle, Josephine Baker's banana dance, Sir Mix-A-Lot's biggest hit, Kim Kardashian's 2014 cover of Paper magazine, and the fastest growing segment of the cosmetic surgery industry: butt implants.

Following years of dehumanizing exhibition, Baartman found herself in a court case brought by British abolitionists demanding an end to her show. She defended her right to exhibit herself. Questions surrounding her agency during this trial will never be answered, but for an African woman alone in Europe at the turn of the eighteenth-century, exhibition may have equaled survival. When Dunlop died, Baartman relocated to France and found new audiences. She also increasingly became the subject of scientific curiosity and scrutiny.

A famous French anatomist and zoologist named Georges Cuvier (some refer to him today as the "Father of paleontology") visited her performances and took an interest in Baartman. Once in France, she didn't live long. On 9 December 1815, Sarah Baartman died from an unknown condition, and despite her wishes to the contrary, Cuvier acquired and dissected her corpse. He wrote and published studies comparing her to non-human species, and displayed her remains in the Musee de l'Homme. Until 1974, you could still find her body cast, skeleton, brain and genitals on display. It was only through the long and concerted efforts of Nelson Mandela that Baartman's remains (incomplete - her genitals were never returned) were finally repatriated to South Africa and buried in her homeland in 2002.

In 1996, coinciding with efforts by artists and activists in South Africa to bring those remains home, a new play by Suzan-Lori Parks premiered at the Public Theater in New York City. Loosely based on the life of Saartjie Baartman, Venus was staged by avant-garde director Richard Foreman. It was both lauded and pilloried in the press as an avant-garde masterpiece, a failed collaboration between incongruous aesthetics, even a "re-exploitation" of Baartman herself. Critics found the story distancing and opaque and left before intermission. Fans saw a work of genius, brimming with humanity. The rumored conflict between the two principal artists was the source of flickering gossip throughout the theatre community. Perhaps as a result of its uneasy birth, Venus enjoyed few productions in the larger regional theatre circuit of the U.S. (TheatreForum published the play in issue #9, as well as an interview with Suzan-Lori Parks, by Tom Sellar.)

My relationship with the play began soon after. In an improbably ambitious project produced by Bridgit Antoinette Evans and Rana Kazkaz, The Venus Project set a goal to stage the play in South Africa, timing its production to accompany the repatriation and burial of Sarah Baartmans' remains. They invited me to direct the play, and our eventual performances took us from New York City to South Africa to Croatia over six years, examining the play from the dizzying vantage points of love, post-colonial racism, and eventually, contemporary sex trafficking. Most recently, I staged the play in Pittsburgh, with fellow artist Bria Walker performing the role of Venus. [Photo 1] Walker is a dedicated professional actress, and was in full command of the stage throughout our process. But witnessing the challenges of the role itself, I felt occasional misgivings. I wondered what it cost to tell this story, in this way.

How would a contemporary actress play the role to engage with the history of enslavement; their own culturally reinforced marginalization; or ways in which they had been ashamed and shamed about their skin color, shape, weight and sex? …

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