Saturday, 29 April 2017

VENUS by Susan-Lori Parks at the Signature Theatre

     There was once celebrated play about a nineteenth-century freak, Bernard Pomerance's THE ELEPHANT MAN. Susan-Lori Parks's VENUS tells the tale of a 19th century Black female "freak," Saartjie Baartman, The Venus Hottentot (Zainab Jah). Since this is a play by Susan-Lori Parks, the story will be told in a roundabout fashion (literally here), and include many authorial interventions. A narrator, The Negro Resurrectionist (Kevin Mambo), acts as interlocutor for the scenes that work in circular fashion from her death to her death. Parks's interest is in the ways a Black woman's body is violated. The Negro Resurrectionist reminds us that her story begins three years after England made slavery illegal, yet Baartman is always a slave. She moves from indentured servitude in South Africa to basically unpaid life in a touring freak show in England to the kept woman of  racist French professor of anatomy who loves her in his limited fashion (John Ellison Coulee). She is placed on display by the owner of the freak show and sexually abused by drunken men. Bought by the French doctor, she is his kept woman until he tires of her and his reputation is threatened. Ultimately she dies of exposure in Paris.
     This is a profoundly disturbing tale of injustice, but Parks always keeps us at a distance from the emotional power of the story. In Brechtian fashion she throws in various distancing devices--the narrator, the grotesque chorus who play a variety of characters, an occasional song, the reverse numbering of scenes and an occasional historical "footnote." As usual with her work, theatre/performance is a metaphor for human relations. At Parks worst, her work can be pretentious and off-putting. This 1996 work is best in the second act where there are less of her intrusions.
     Lear Debessonet gives the play the theatrical flair it needs. Zainab Jah and John Ellison Conlee, the only actors who have real characters to play, make the most of the material. As usual, Kevin Mambo is charismatic and the ensemble is effective.

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