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A CurtainUp Review


— The Chorus's introduction of Suzan-Lori Parks' resurrection of Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. The Venus Hottentot.
Zainab Jahr and cast (Photo: Joan Marcus)
People whose bodies are bizarrely different from what's considered the norm have long been famously exploited as freak show attractions. Live theater's most produced play about such a historic freak was Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man. In 1996, Suzan-Lori Parks, resurrected another historic "freak"—Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. The Venus Hottentot. But there's a difference between John Merrick and Baartman's Hottentot Venus.

Merrick's gargantuan head was a rare physical abnormality, whereas Baartman's oversized buttocks where considered normal among members of her Khoikhoi tribe. So it wasn't until she was persuaded in 1810 to leave her indentured servant existence in Africa and spend a few years in England to make money as a circus novelty act that she became a freak. Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs were gruesomely removed and on display in a Paris museum until 1974 and it took until 2001 to finally bury her remains in her native land. Thus it's no wonder that Baartman has become something of a cause célèbre example of Colonial exploitation and that Parks wanted to give this shamefully abused woman the show she deserved.

I didn't see the initial Richard Foreman directed version of Venus at the Public Theater so don't know how much updating the scrpt has undergone. However, it's easy to see why Ms. Parks' felt a new version of her play was a timely addition to her Signature Theater residency in view of the ever escalating discussions about what's "gender normative" and "what we're supposed to look like." At any rate, Lear Debessonet, who now directs, has given it a visually stunning and finely cast new production.

Like another early Parks play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, this new-old play features a large cast and showcases the author's penchant for a non-linear, somewhat hard to follow, time traveling structure with numerous musical interludes (composed by Parks).

That said, Venus , despite the detours from straightforward story telling and its grotesque chorus, is not all that hard to follow. However, it's painfully hard to watch . In the interest of a dynamic theatrical narrative the script smartly merges and alters biographical facts and some characters discovered in various documented sources. The Brechtian flavor which includes the device an ever present narrator, makes Debessonet, who so impressively staged Brecht's Good Person Of Szechwan , the ideal director for this new-old Venus. No matter what the format (Baartman's story was told quite differently in a 2010 film entitled Black Venus), this is a study of horrendous exploitation. A look at the program's list of the actors playing members of the Chorus signals its importance. These notable thespians pop regularly as individual characters or as a unit (one of my favorites here was their appearing as judges in the scene "The Venus Hottentot Before the Law").

Of course, this is the titular Venus's show and Zainab Jah, who last year played Wife #2, Maima in Danai Gurira's Eclipsed , is magnificently heartbreaking from the moment she enters the stage transforms herself into the huge buttocked shape of her character. Kevin Mambo and John Ellison Conlee shine in the two other key roles.

Mambo is outstanding as the Negro Resurrectionist, whether on stage, or roaming the aisle singing and strumming a guitar. John Ellison Conlee is eerily charismatic as the Baron Docteur with whom Baartman falls in love. In his own way, he loves her too but ultimately he betrays her trust (a trust most vividly portrayed in a second act scene in which she allows him to cut her hair) and eventually takes part the dismembering of her body for purposes of profitable lectures.

Scenic designer Matt Saunders has created two evocative sets to accompany the story's trajectory from Baartman's naively agreeing to become a sideshow performer to her tragic downfall. The scenes in Africa and England are full of circus-y flair. The second and more emotionally potent second act moves to a quieter more elegant Paris hotel bedroom. Emilio Sosa's costumes and J. Jared Janas's wig and makeup design further enhance the show's visual pleasures.

For all its colorful staging and fine acting, Venus can't quite escape coming off as a rather obvious history lesson, but one, especially Parks'many fans, won't want to miss.

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Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed By Lear deBessonet
Cast (in order of appearance: Zainab Jah (Miss Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a The Girl & The Venus Hottentott), Kevin Mambo (The Negro Resurrectonist),John Ellison Conlee (The Man, later The Baron Docteur); Hannah Cabell, Randy Danson, Adam Green, Birgit Huppuch, Patrena Murray, Reynaldo Piniella, Julian Rozzell, Tony Torn (The Chorus, plus one other character each)
Scenic Design: Matt Saunders
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design and Original Music: Brandon Wolcott
Choreographer>: Danny Mefford
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Wig, Hair and Makeup: J. Jared Janas
Stage Manager: Evangeline Rose Whitlock
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street
From 4/25/17; opening 5/15/17;closing 6/04/17
.Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/13 press preview

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