‘Venus’ a 19th-century story with 21st-century implications

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Sometimes theatre worms its way into primal parts of you. You’re left feeling unsettled and with more questions than answers. Frank Theatre never flinches from taking on challenging material, and their current production of Suzy-Lori Parks’ Venus is as big a risk as I’ve seen a theatre take.

Based on the true, (but, sketchy) story of, Saartjie Baartman, a woman of the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa, who was taken to London and put on near-nude display in 1810. She became known as the “Venus Hottentot” and died five years later, at the age of 26. This play is a 19th-century freak-show/musical, skulking a razor’s edge between re-creation and parody. Joel Sass transforms the Traffic Zone space into a perfect convergence of museum storage vault, circus ring and Victorian tableaus. The garish “freaks” and their mendacious handlers are a kind of melodrama on meth, with energy to burn. Ultimately, the audience is lured into a complicit voyeurism.

Even without the multi-media that’s almost become a requirement for contemporary theatre, Venus exemplfies “spectacle,” and I suspect that’s part of the subtext that Parks is aiming for. Watching this play, I found a weird mix of memory and images floating unbidden to my brain: my one harrowing visit as an 8-year-old to a real ‘freak show” at the Texas State Fair; famous classic “pin-ups”—especially, Marilyn Monroe—with their odd “purient innocence”; depictions of African slaves on the auction block; go-go girls in 1960s cages and strippers slidng down poles; MTV “booty shot” music videos. While somewhat irritating, the regular references to “Scene numbers” and “footnotes,” resoudingly read by The Negro Resurrectionist (Dana Munson) lend an unreality that reinforces that what we’re seeing is just “representation,” not real lives that inevitably throw one into re-considering the media-saturated, image-drenched age we live in now.

Parks has written Venus as a young woman who’s often inscutable, occasionally recalcitrant, and sometimes made to be complicit in her own exploitation. When we do glimpse the human woman behind the totally sexualized “Other” of Parks’ pen, it’s only because of the always stunning talent of Sha Cage, who could soulfully read a grocery list. Cage brings a more complex humanity than Parks has imagined. She gives us moments of bewildered sweetness, thorny endurance, and a hint of longing too painful to say aloud, but emanating from her along with an infinite loneliness.

The various showmen (and gawkers) only respond to her with equal measures of economic opportunism and/or predatory sexuality, yet whatever moral outrage one should feel on Venus’ behalf keeps being dissipated by Park’s feeding Venus lines like “I’m here to make a mint” or her “bargaining” with “The Mother-Showman,” played with perfect excess by Maria Asp (a Frank staple). It’s not that one can’t imagine Venus/Saartjie struggling to have some agency over her own fate, only that Parks is generating the similar arguments currently applied to “sex industry as career choice.” When applied to an African woman in 1810, alone in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, preyed upon from all sides, Parks reinfores a racist mysogyny.

The Doctor (Patrick Bailey) buys Venus’ freedom from the freak show, creating the hope for a redemptive love that’s nothing more than obsession, which Bailey makes believable. What Venus feels toward him remains uncertain: is her preening baby-talk a captive playing her assigned role or a sexy affection? Is real love even possible when only one person holds all the authority? Is Venus simply making the best of all the bad circumstances she’s in?

Parks has said in interviews that her “Venus isn’t a victim,” impatient with the inevitable political issues her play raises, saying she and other African American writers are expected to “only deal with politics, not art.” But there’s no way to avoid politcs when raising issues of race, gender, sexuality, freedom, confinement, and commodification. Parks has created a crowd of tropes, not real characters. While Venus is obviously bright and ambitious, her creator reduces her to a mere black female body as much as any of the freak show customers do. This play veers from a macabre cabaret to a cold examination of the most intimate exploitation.

Recognizing how brutal exploitation dehumanizes those it profits from isn’t the same thing as “making someone a victim”—unless we’ve somehow decided that market values reign supreme above any others and we’re all just product.

But maybe that’s the most troubling question that Venus leaves us with—a question as old as American slavery and as current as this year’s Oscar-winning song “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp”.

Venus runs through April 26. Thur.-Sat. 8pm. Sun. 2pm (followed by post-show discussion Sundays only).Tickets $18 Thur. & Sun. $20 Fri. & Sat. Traffic Zine, 250 Third Ave. North, Warehouse District, downtown Minneapolis (612)724-3760 www.franktheatre.org

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