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Reviewed by:
  • Venus
  • Anne Davis Basting
Venus. By Suzan-Lori Parks. Public Theater, New York. 7 May 1996

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Figure 1.

Venus (Adina Porter) and The Mother Showman (Sandra Shipley) in the Public Theater’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, directed by Richard Foreman. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

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Figure 2.

Venus (Adina Porter) and The Baron Docteur (Peter Fancis James) in the Public Theater’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, directed by Richard Foreman. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

How does history impact the present? How do present actions reshape the past? What is the shape of the past? Suzan-Lori Parks’s latest play, Venus, grapples with questions that echo with her previous works, including The American Play and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. In Venus, the shape of the past takes the form of “the great heathen buttocks” of Miss Sartje Baartman, an African woman brought to London in 1810 to play the freak show circuit. According to Parks, Miss Baartman is lured to London by promises of prosperity, only to be sold to The Mother Showman, caretaker of The 8 Human Wonders. Joining the ranks of a three-legged man and Siamese twins, Baartman becomes known as “The Venus Hottentot;” her enormous buttocks a spectacle of primitive, uncontained sexuality.

This seemingly straightforward tale of exploitation, which the play reminds us occurred three years after the slave trade was made illegal, is complicated by Baartman’s desires to be famous, loved, and, in her own words, filthy rich. Instead, caged like an animal, she is merely filthy. Not allowed out of the cage even to relieve herself, the stench of her feces ironically adds to her exoticism and marketability. Rather than kill her desires, her captivity fuels them.

But Baartman’s desires and irrepressible optimism are nearly moot. Under Richard Foreman’s [End Page 223] [Begin Page 225] direction, the Public Theater’s premiere of Venus is ultimately a series of untenable positions in which Baartman, and those who consistently betray her, rhetorically ask “do I have a choice?” For example, in the act 2, a doctor falls in love with Venus, buys her contract from The Mother Showman, takes Venus to Paris, teaches her French, makes her his mistress, and subjects her to medical studies. The exploitation of the cage is replaced by the prodding of doctors’ instruments in a Parisian medical academy. His colleagues threaten the lasciviously benevolent doctor’s career if he doesn’t end his relationship with Venus. “Yr wifes distraught,” says The Grade-School Chum (Venus, in TheatreForum, No. 9 [Summer/Fall 1996]: 68). “Love me?” asks Venus (67).

The character of The Negro Resurrectionist acts as a guide through both history and the play’s landscape, calling out scene numbers which run playfully forward and backward, and adding historical and literary footnotes. Fiction and nonfiction, flesh and word collide when The Negro Resurrectionist becomes Venus’s Watchman at play’s end—the jailor of history forced to deliver Venus’s bones for medical and historical scrutiny. After she is turned out by the doctor and jailed for indecency, The Negro Resurrectionist/Watchman faces a decision similar to Venus’s before him. Forced to promise delivery of her body for the autopsy, he ponders his limited choices: loss of his job and the certain ensuing poverty, or honoring the bones of the dead. Do the characters have choices? Amidst physical and economic threats and the weighty momentum of colonialism and sexism, the answer is as clear as the red light that flashes throughout the production: no.

The indisputability of this resounding “no” challenges the production to animate the story in other ways. Among other devices, Parks provides a play within the play, presented by a many-faced chorus, telling an abbreviated story of Venus’s impact on English culture through a love affair in which a white British woman makes her buttocks more ample in order to attract her fiancé who is smitten with the Venus Hottentot. Rather than focus on the subtler nuances of Parks’s playful text, Richard...

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pp. 223-225
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