Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the most grotesque, the most unusual, the most unbelievable, the most astonishing show ever to come out of the great production machinery of University Theater (UT)!
Seriously, though, UT’s production of Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks is atypical in many ways. The play centers on the true story of an African girl who was brought to Britain in the early 1800s and put on public display as the “Hottentot Venus.” People gathered from all over to gawk and even prod at her supposedly oversized buttocks and genitalia. She was later brought to Paris for the purposes of “medical research,” where she died soon thereafter. Her genitals and brain were left on display in the Musée de l’Homme until the mid-1980s.
“There’s sexism, there’s racism, there’s voyeurism, there’s just about every ‘ism,’” said director John Frame, describing how the play confronts an incredibly wide range of sometimes sensitive subjects.
Venus (Lauren Slone) is onstage for almost the entire production in order to highlight, according to Frame, the idea that she is constantly on display. Throughout the course of the play she is ogled, prodded, and abused by a wide range of characters, from disingenuous showmen to random spectators to French physicians.
The play opens with the narrator as he gathers papers and removes clothes and masks from an old chest. From these secondary objects, our narrator will reconstruct the story of the “Hottentot Venus.” To the sound of a pulsing drumbeat, the five actors of the chorus take the stage. In a move that establishes the thread of symbolism and confrontation that runs throughout the production, the actors remove their ordinary modern clothing to reveal black bodysuits underneath. Then, they take up the grotesque masks that are scattered across the stage.
Most actors play multiple stock roles, adding to the insinuation that the play is meant to address not specific characters or events, but the disturbing general traits of humanity that could lead to such a spectacle. The chorus represents, among other groups and individuals, Venus’s fellow “freaks,” courtiers in England, and the French medical community.
The production places a special emphasis on the idea that all the events portrayed onstage are constructed from highly subjective secondhand accounts. In her script, Suzan-Lori Parks blends these actual articles and documents from the period into her fictional dialogue and narration. For much of the play, the narrator reads from numbered and lettered documents, sometimes just shouting the numbers and letters of those documents, reminding the audience that what they are seeing is not the real “Hottentot Venus.” In truth, there was never a real “Hottnetot Venus,” only an African girl named Sara Baartman whose image was manipulated in the eyes and minds of the public.
“I want people to think about how we view history,” said Frame. “I think we need to question the people that came before us and what they’ve left us.”
Venus is a production that fascinates and simultaneously calls into question that fascination. Throughout the play, the audience is kept healthily uncomfortable. Venus is on stage in only her underwear and a large, fake bottom, and all manner of hideous human behaviors are displayed towards her. The play creates a spectacle in order to confront the spectacle at its core.
So come one, come all of good health and strong constitution. For only $6 you, too, can see the spectacle right in our very own Reynolds Club First Floor Theater. But it only runs through Saturday, folks—wonders such as this won’t last forever…