On the list of America’s Most Overrated Dramatists, 21st Century Division, a few names stand out in bold relief: David Mamet, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, A. R. Gurney. Names to conjure with, whisper who dares. And although it’s early in her career, I think it’s safe to say that Suzan-Lori Parks has earned in this exalted Pantheon a place as distinctive as her name.
Exhibit A: Venus, currently on offer by Raleigh Ensemble Players and the Shaw University Theatre Program. The physical production, by REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews, set designer Miyuki Su, lighting master Thomas Mauney, and costumers Diana Waldier and LeGrande Smith, is a carnival: bold, inventive, wildly theatrical … and supporting a play as substantial as a wisp of cotton candy, only less filling.
There surely was a great play to be written about the unfortunate Saartje Baartman (1789-1816), the 21-year old the South African who, because of her enlarged buttocks and unusual labia, was exhibited — indeed, exploited — in London as the Venus Hottentot (or the Hottentot Venus — the epithets seem to have been interchangeable). In the hands of a Lynne Nottage or Ntzoke Shange, Baartmann’s story —dependent as it is on European culture’s racist fascination with the girl’s physical traits — might have been made into a kind of epic tragedy. Instead, we have a play that is itself rather tragic.
Parks’ dramaturgy is one of extremes: on the one hand, excess and on the other, a paucity of ideas, language, structure, emotional connection. It says something about the playwright’s approach that in her hands little feeling is aroused toward her own heroine. Instead of human drama, we get a kind of pigheaded numerology. Our compere, the Negro Resurrectionist (Thaddaeus Edwards), counts off the numbers of the scenes in reverse, which leads us to anticipate — wrongly, it turns out — a story played out topsy-turvy, along the lines of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.
There are maddeningly protracted sequences of people counting (gate admissions first, then anatomical measurements), dialogue replicated ad nauseum (and which reminded me of Herman Mankiewicz’s famous pronouncement on Timespeak: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind”), dialogue that revels in anachronism (“Everything’s coming up roses,” “blew his mind,” “freak out”), and repeated invocations of the weak rhyme “artificial” with “epistle” We’re even asked to accept Saartje being told that the word “maceration” is “French for lunch” — and her believing it — even though she has at that moment been living in Paris for two years and (we’re informed) speaks the language fluently.
What does it all mean? Your guess will be as good as mine, since, apparently, any answer will do.
There are flashes — all too occasional — of brilliance, as when a British court trial mutates into a music hall turn, a bearded lady is conjured up by two actors and the cunning use of hair for whiskers, and Saartje’s final imprisonment includes the chilling image of a black woman chained to a neck-brace. And yet, with all the bustle, Venus feels curiously torpid; a certain longuers sets in early and never quite abates. I’m not sure any show this busy has a right to be quite so boring.
None of this is the fault of the cast, which is largely superb, from Thaddaeus Edwards’ spirited ringmaster to Kevin Poole’s redoubtable Baron Docteur (presumably Baron Cuvier, a surgeon of Napoleon I). Jackie Marriott deserves special mention for her humor and the clarion quality of her estimable vocal timbre. In a large company, only the reliable Lynne Guglielmi fails to fully register.
As Saartje, the splendid Barbette Hunter triumphs over gossamer material, pulling from within herself (for Parks is certainly no help) a performance of depth and emotional clarity. Aside from the actor’s personal courage — she spends most of Act I and a good bit of Act II in a state of near-nakedness — Hunter runs an emotional gamut without once succumbing to histrionics. Her portrayal is masterly; in it reside fear, confusion, hysteria, hilarity, joy, pride, defensive anger, and despair in equal measure. I have long wanted to see Hunter in a starring role. Now I hope to see her in a good one.
Matthews’ direction is ambitious, creating as it does a kind of circus vaudeville of illusion and revelation. But somehow, it doesn’t cohere. Furthermore, the director has a ruinous love of sound for its own sake that often undoes his own effects. During last year’s In the Heart of America, it was an amorphous drone that looped endlessly under the action; here it’s a continuous medley of calliope tunes which even plays, inexplicably, during the production’s occasional underscore, a perverse counterpoint. I’m a long-time admirer of Glen Matthews’ work, but will someone please tell him to shut off the Victrola?
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Venus Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 17-19, at 8 p.m.; and Wednesday-Friday, Feb. 23-25, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery II, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with valid ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance Feb. 17 ($5 suggested minimum). 919/832-9607 and TTY 919/835-0624. Note: On Feb. 18th, there will be fully accessible performance. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/venus2.html [inactive 9/06]. Artspace: http://www.artspacenc.org/. Biography: http://zar.co.za/baartman.htm [inactive 10/05].
Raleigh Ensemble Players and the Shaw University Theatre Program will present Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks’ R-rated play inspired by the life and times of Saartje (Sara) Baartman (1789-1816), the Hottentot Venus, Feb. 10-25 in Artspace Gallery II in downtown Raleigh, NC. A young Khoi Khoi woman working in a menial job in her native South Africa, Baartman left for London at age 21 and became an instant sensation in European freak shows, because of her enlarged buttocks.
"Venus was brought to the table during REP’s artistic committee process last winter,” says REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews. “Julya Mirro, a member of the Shaw University theater faculty, had spent some time in college researching both Suzan-Lori Parks and the play and felt that the piece was a perfect fit for REP. The other members of the artistic committee found the play challenging and exciting, agreeing whole-heartedly that Venus was indeed a piece that REP must embrace and share.”
Matthews explains, “I think most of us were immediately taken with the play’s theatricality... the manner in which Parks chooses to tell her story. From her imaginative, unconventional use of structure to her unique approach to language, Suzan-Lori Parks has a style all her own. She has taken a story, with which very few are familiar, and, using both fact and fantasy, whipped up an event of Brechtian proportions. Venus is a journey, and as we move through it, our eyes and ears are opened to the beautiful and the horrific within ourselves.”
Glen Matthews summarizes the play’s plot as follows: “Under the guidance and watchful eye of the Negro Resurrectionist (Thaddaeus Edwards), we find our way to South Africa where we meet a young Khoi Khoi woman named Saartjie (Barbette Hunter). She works for The Man (Kevin Poole), who is presently in negotiations with his Brother (Lynne Guglielmi) concerning a business proposition: displaying a ‘dancing African princess.’
"With the promise of fame and fortune, the brother lures Saartjie to Europe,” Matthews continues, “and sells her to the Mother Showman (Lynne Guglielmi) and her Great Chain of Being — a traveling sideshow featuring eight Wonders of nature (Beth Popelka, Donnis Collins, Kelly Lowery, Lamont Reed, Louis Martinez, Karen Stallings, Tim Overcash, and Terence Burgin). Saartjie becomes the ninth Wonder and is exhibited as the Venus Hottentot, showing off her unique physical attributes.”
Matthews says, “European society is both outraged and enthralled, a court case ensues, and theaters of the period produce parodies of the Venus. We catch glimpses of one particular performance titled ‘For the Love of the Venus.’ The actors (Jessenia Golden, Jackie Marriott, Ricco Baker, and Tim Overcash) perform for a single audience member, the Baron Docteur (Kevin Poole); and it is the Docteur who eventually purchases the Venus and seals her fate.”
In addition to director C. Glen Matthews, the Venus production team includes assistant director and dramaturge Julya Mirro, set designer Miyuki Su, lighting designer Thomas Mauney, and costume designers Diana Waldier and LeGrande Smith.
Glen Matthews says, “This is a huge undertaking for REP and, thankfully, we are not alone in this exciting endeavor. When the play was chosen for inclusion in REP’s season, the company knew that it was important to find a ‘partner in crime,’ so to speak. It made perfect sense for REP to collaborate with the Shaw University Theatre Program and Julya Mirro, and we couldn’t be more thrilled with the outcome.
"The scope and scale of this play is larger than anything REP has tackled in recent seasons,” notes Matthews. “So, our greatest challenge as a production team was to find a way to tell Parks’ epic story given the confines of our performance space: Artspace’s Gallery II. Combine this challenge with the playwright’s use of language and structure, add a diverse and talented cast of 15 (playing multiple characters) to the mix, and you’ve got quite an adventure on your hands. And all of it — audience included — must fit in a 40’ x 40’ room. Or does it? I think the audience will have a wonderful time experiencing our approach to meeting these challenges.”
Matthews adds, “Patrons will be enveloped into the carnival setting [and] bombarded by colors, smells, and lighting. [W]hat you will witness will shock and amaze.” He cautions, “Venus is intended for mature audiences[, because it c]ontains adult language/situations and nudity.”
Note: Raleigh Ensemble Players, Raleigh Little Theatre, and PlayMakers Repertory Company of Chapel Hill will celebrate Black History Month by offering an innovative ticket package for three special performances of shows by current African-American playwrights. The package includes tickets to Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus (REP and the Shaw University Theatre Program, Feb. 11th), Charles Randolph-Wright’s Blue (RLT, Feb. 20th), and Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman (PRC, March 17th), as well as post-play discussion sessions. The special package price of $40 for all three shows is a 30 percent savings over the combined ticket price, and is good only on the three Special Offer Dates indicated above.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Venus Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 10-12 and 17-19, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 20, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday-Friday, Feb. 23-25, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery II, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with valid ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance Feb. 17 ($5 suggested minimum). 919/832-9607 and TTY 919/835-0624. Note 1: On Feb. 11, there will be a preshow screening of Zola Maseko’s prize-winning documentary, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: The Hottentot Venus. Note 2: On Feb. 18th, there will be fully accessible performance. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/venus2.html [inactive 9/06]. Artspace: http://www.artspacenc.org/. Biography: http://zar.co.za/baartman.htm [inactive 10/05].