Saartjie Baartman, a black South African woman who became a semi-celebrity in early 19th century Europe by exhibiting her “big bottom” to curious spectators, is the subject of Suzan-Lori Parks’s disturbing and disorienting 1996 drama “Venus.”
Parks is a prominent African-American playwright whose experimental and occasionally baffling works include “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)” and the Pulitzer-winning “Topdog/Underdog.”
“Venus” is pageant-like, intellectual — exploring objectification, colonialism, fetishism and voyeurism — and reminiscent of “The Elephant Man.” And now Lear deBessonet, artistic director of the Public Theater’s community-oriented Public Works series, has staged an excellent revival of the play at the Signature Theatre, where Parks is a writer-in-residence.
The play opens with Zainab Jah (recently of “Eclipsed”) silently putting on a stuffed, flesh-colored body suit that simulates Baartman’s nude physique. The ensemble, wearing Emilio Sosa’s bizarre wardrobes, and led by a mysterious ringleader billed as the “Negro Resurrectionist” (Kevin Mambo), gathers around Matt Saunders’ eerie circus tent-meets-operating theater set and forcefully declares that the “Venus Hottentot” — Baartman’s stage name — is dead.
From there, we attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, or rather Baartman. Parks depicts her journey from South Africa (dutifully scrubbing floors as a domestic servant) to London (headlining a gritty freak show) to Paris (serving as mistress and medical curiosity to a respectable physician) to tragic final curtain (dying under murky circumstances).
Whether the play’s bold and self-aware theatricality (including lines chanted in unison, scattered selections from a courtly romantic drama, announced scene changes and recited footnotes) adds to or detracts from the impact of the storytelling is up for debate.
But thanks to superb production values and an absorbing and ambiguous performance from Jah, who keeps you guessing about the extent to which Baartman controls her own fate, “Venus” works over the audience like an intoxicating spell. Contrary to what you may have heard, the “Venus Hottentot” is not dead.