Zainab Jah, who made an impressive Broadway debut as a sex slave turned soldier in Eclipsed, is back on a New York stage with another vivid portrayal of an exploited but strong African woman in Venus. Her performance is the best thing about director Lear deBessonet’s highly stylized, colorfully designed revival of this 1996 play by Suzan-Lori Parks — part of Signature Theater’s year-long look back at the work of the Pulitzer-winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog that began in November with The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.
The character Jah portrays is based on the historical figure of Saartjie Baartman, who was born in what is now South Africa, and brought to England in 1810 to be exhibited in freak shows as the Hottentot Venus. She died five years later in France at age 26. Her remains were put on display in a Parisian museum for nearly two centuries, until the South African government of Nelson Mandela demanded their return to South Africa for burial.
What so fascinated early 19th century (and 20th century?) Europeans about Baartman were her large buttocks, a standard physical trait of the Khoi people (whom Europeans at the time called Hottentots.)
Parks used this history to create a busy, theatrical poem that had its premiere 21 years ago at the Public Theater directed by the avant-garde theater artist Richard Foreman. In the revival at the Signature, it is easier to discern the basic plot, which can be divided into two parts. There is the time Venus spends in the British freak show circuit overseen by a character named The Mother-Showman (Randy Danson, suitably repellent), and then her purchase by the Baron Docteur (John Ellison Conlee, credibly conflicted), who takes her to Paris as both his mistress and his prized medical specimen.
But reciting the plot doesn’t get at Venus at all, since, as both director deBessonet and playwright Parks have emphasized, the play is not historically accurate and in any case the plot is just one element of the show. Venus is divided into 31 scenes, each of which is announced count-down style by a character called The Negro Resurrectionist (Kevin Mambo, eminently watchable) a combination, barker, narrator, and historian who interjects some half dozen “footnotes”: He sings songs written about her at the time, recites a contemporary advertisement, reads from the racist autopsy report.
There are also campy scenes from a costume and bewigged drama entitled “For the Love of the Venus,” and a long courtroom scene with a chorus of bewigged jurists that could be borrowed from a musical comedy. Indeed, the Signature production of Venus reminded me of Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, in its attempt to frame a horror show from history as an in-your-face entertainment. Kander and Ebb were borrowing from – and commenting on — the American tradition of minstrelsy. The creative team of Venus seems to be borrowing some of their style from European circuses, which is especially clear from Matt Saunders’ set design and Emilio Sosa’s costumes. But if it’s a circus that’s their model, it’s one with many sideshows. Park does not wish to be restricted to any one style or focus. How else to explain the scene entitled “A Brief History of Chocolate,” in which Venus offers what the scene’s title promises?
One can extrapolate from this monologue some kind of comment on the evolution of love, just as one can view the whole of Venus as riffs on sexism and racism and attitudes toward appearance and even the nature of ogling.
The very first thing we see on stage is Jah putting on a nude body suit, with the aid of a man dressed like a circus ringmaster. Then she poses for us, “naked” save for a scant loin cloth. The unspoken question: Are we, the spectators in 2017, all that different from the ones who paid two shillings in 1810?
While the principal cast and the cartoon-wigged ensemble all do fine work, it is Jah’s performance that carries the show. She provides a focus otherwise lacking. She embodies a character whose complexity makes her more interesting than just a victim or a symbol of oppression.
Venus is on stage at Pershing Square Signature Center, (480 W 42nd St., just east of 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through June 4, 2017.
Tickets and details
Venus Written by Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed By Lear deBessonet. Set design by Matt Saunders, costume design by Emilio Sosa, sound design and composed by Brandon Wolcott, choreographed by Danny Mefford
Cast Hannah Cabell, John Ellison Conlee, Randy Danson, Adam Green, Birgit Huppuch, Zainab Jah, Kevin Mambo, Patrena Murray, Reynaldo Piniella, Julian Rozzell and Tony Torn