‘Venus’ vividly recounts a historic tale of exploitation

By Matt Singer / Staff Writer

We first see the Venus Hottentot under dim lighting and with a flock of spectators circling her like vultures and hurling insults. And although the annular chorus declares her to be dead, it’s hard to believe — she’s right in front of us, after all. It isn’t until the Venus Hottentot herself says that she’s dead that we start to believe it. It’s something in her voice that makes it believable, a modesty that makes the sinking statement sound real.

Thus starts Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus,” which Pitt’s Theatre Arts Department is performing until Nov. 10. Directed by Cynthia Croot, this rendition of Parks’ work conveys the powerful gravity of the plight of the Venus Hottentot, the stage name of the fictional Sarah Baartman.

Baartman is convinced through dubious means to leave her life as a slave in South Africa and go to England to be a performer. However, the fine print actually says that she’ll be a freak show presentation. Hopeful and willing, she embarks on a trip to England, where she expects stardom to be waiting for her.

Baartman’s tale is, at face value, an uphill battle in which she tries to “make her mint” so that she may return to her home in South Africa with enough money to live a decent life. And with Bria Walker playing Baartman, we want her to find that happiness.

Walker’s performance succeeds because of the modesty that she brings to her character. She oscillates between a contained sense of optimism and forlorn desperation. Although a transition between these emotions — which sit at opposite poles — should be abrasive, Walker’s transitions are smooth. When she cries and gasps in pain after being poked, prodded and kicked, the sounds come out as if screamed through a pillow.

This doesn’t nullify the audience’s sense of pity for her. Rather, it galvanizes it.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the scene in which the Venus Hottentot threatens to leave if she does not receive better pay for her participation in the freakshow. Mother Showman taunts her and deprives her of any sort of humanity, clearly spelling out that the Venus Hottentot is a freak, an “it,” and has no place in the society that pays money to rubberneck at her. Yet when the Venus Hottentot falls to the ground in desperation, Mother Showman asks her softly, in a seemingly loving voice so keenly veiled with ulterior motives, “You’d walk out on ya mother?”

Enter Terry Hardcastle as the Baron Docteur, a Frenchman who purchases the Venus Hottentot for scientific examination. The Docteur’s fascination with the creature blurs the lines between scientific pursuit and sick, insatiable lasciviousness. While he liberates her from her freakshow lifestyle, he subjugates her to objectification and uses her to release his repressed desires for exoticism.

The exact conditions that lead up to the Venus Hottentot’s death are best left to the performers to reveal, but it should be noted that Simmons returns to the stage to play another character: the “grade school chum” who convinces the Baron Docteur to abandon his sexual deviance.

Simmons’ excellent performance as the grade school chum, in addition to that seen in her other roles, speaks to the relationship that propels the story forward and keeps us engaged.

If “Venus” is to be looked at as a tragic story of pain and loss, Walker is the afflicted and Simmons is the depriver. The entire story would have fallen flat without powerhouse performances from the actors assigned to these roles. 

The stifled modesty that Walker brings to her role juxtaposed against the performances of Simmons and Hardcastle make this rendition of “Venus” satisfyingly heart-wrenching.