Voyeurs de Venus – Blurring the Line Between Promotion and Exploitation
September 4, 2018
In 1810, a young Khoikhoi woman from South Africa journeys or is convinced to come to England, lured by the promise of money and a better life if she turns herself into an exotic object of spectacle for the amusement and erotic pleasure of those who would pay to see her. In five years, after being declared the link between Man and the Great Apes by naturalist Georges Cuvier, the so-called Hottentot Venus will die of disease and drink in a garret in Paris. Like Pocahontas before her, the young woman will be dead, given a derisive name in a strange land, before the age of 30. In life, an exotic erotic whose ample posterior suggested unknown depths of primitive pleasure, in death, a rare and precious collection of bones and body parts created by Cuvier to be displayed and studied at the Musèe de l’homme as an example of primitive body types. The “Hottentot Venus,” Saartjie Baartman will not go home to South Africa for 150 years until a fellow Black South African is elected president of the newly post-Apartheid South Africa.
The how and why, the fame and attendant degradation of Saartjie Baartman’s short-lived time upon the European stage forms the backbone of award-winning playwright Lydia Diamond’s though-provoking play, “Voyeurs de Venus,” currently on stage at Moxie Theatre as the opening production of its new season.
True to Moxie form, “Voyeurs” is a brilliantly staged production with excellent sets and a stellar cast. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s careful directing keeps the storyline taut, without rushing it to its surprising conclusion.
In “Voyeurs de Venus,” Diamond follows two Sara’s- pop culture anthropologist and African-American academic Sara Washington (Cashae Monya) and her most recent subject of research, Saartjie Baartman whose physique launched a career in which exploitation, racism, avarice, and abasement were front and center in early 19th century Europe.
Modern Sara becomes increasingly obsessed with the 19th century Saartjie as she starts to work on a book about her. Ambitious, self-conscious, and curiously insecure, Sara wants to create an accessible work for the general reading public. Her publishers want a barn burner- with lurid pictures.
As Sara becomes more and more obsessed with her subject, Saartjie comes to her in dreams, as well as the beds she shares with her patient, supportive White professor husband (Justin Lang) and her African-American publisher (Cortez Johnson).
As the line between Sara and Saartjie starts to blur, Diamond subtly turns the audience into the voyeurs of the title, placing us not only as witnesses to Sara’s struggle to honor the young African woman’s story, but of Saartjie’s final interaction and triumph over George Cuvier who saw her as a scientific treasure whose body he wanted to possess both in life and in death.
The show is clever is slightly overwritten and beautifully laid out. Justin Humphres’s divided stage is dynamic, with one side Sara’s bedroom and the other usually her publisher’s office or Cuvier’s lab with occasional sets bridging the space. The use of theatre-length curtains to close off spaces and scenes is brilliant, one more example of how Moxie uses limited space in fantastically creative ways.
Cashae Monya is stellar as Sara Washington, keeping tight control over Sara’s anxiety-ridden tendency to spout academese at the drop of a hat, and her almost crush-like enthusiasm for her subject. Monya, a regular on the Moxie stage, has grown beautifully from a coltish lead into a commanding stage presence.
Newcomer Joy Jones is luminous as Saartjie Baartman. An interesting casting choice- Saartjie was under 5 feet tall while Jones is not- Jones brings a quiet, compelling power to her role, imbuing Saartjie with a grace and dignity which makes her story that much more heart-wrenching as it unfolds.
Cortez Johnson’s turn as the persuasive publisher, James Booker, makes it clear that he is a force to watch for in San Diego theatre. Johnson’s Booker is smooth, smart, and more than holds his own with Sara as he works to acquire both the book and its author.
Justin Lang does double duty both as Sara’s husband James and the French naturalist, Georges Cuvier, keeping the two roles separate, but emphasizing vague similarities between the two. Lang’s “French” accent needs some work, and Moxie might really consider dropping the distracting practice of using accents to signify “foreign” when two characters are supposedly talking to each other in their own language.
Nancy Ross is poignantly comic as Cuvier’s assistant and sometime lover, Millicent Ducent, and appropriately clueless as the hapless Becky. The rest of the actors amply inhabit their narrowly defined roles- Fred Harlow and Max Macke are appropriately prurient and mildly loathsome as Saraatjie’s would be exploiters.
Diamond explores some very timely issues here- appropriation, colonial exploitation, race, and gender dynamics, and yet the subtexts in the script and the production upstage her intent and render the play unbalanced.
The various elements are fun, but the song and dance numbers as well as Sara’s numerous addresses to the audience give the play the sense of a vaudeville show. The dance numbers are particularly good; however, the first, aptly labeled as Sara’s nightmare, starts to unpeel the uneasiness to come. Several dancers, mostly white, are clad almost solely in a banana skirt around their waists. Is this an homage to Josephine Baker, the famed African-American who was the toast of Jazz-age Paris? A comment on White appropriation of Black commentary on colonialism? And why does it feel like a tone-deaf sorority house romp?
Diamond just goes on from there, creating unsettled parallel after parallel. There is modern Sara and her subject, Saraatjie- little Sara in Afrikaans. Little Sara is exploited and probably bedded by her handlers, Sara is courted with lupine-like suaveness by her publisher, James Booker, who sees landing her book as well as bedding its author as part of the package.
Sonnenberg’s casting choices further emphasize the parallel structure. Contrary to other productions of Diamond’s play, Sonnenberg has chosen to double up some of the roles. The most profound doubling is that of Justin Lang as Sara’s White husband, James, and as the French scientist, Georges Cuvier, whose obsession with Saraatjie followed her into death. The double casting suggests some troubling subtext. Is Sonnenberg equating Sara’s marriage to James with Saraatjie’s horrific arrangement with Cuvier? Is Sara’s subconscious conflating herself with Saraatjie?
As a result, Sara’s invocation of Saartjie is just that- a haunting- and while bits and pieces of what is thought to be known of Saartjie’s story bubble up, mostly through conversations, Sara is shown to be an unreliable narrator- we see Cuvier and parts of Saartjie’s experiences filtered through Sara’s somewhat fevered imaginations and her almost hyper, post-doc like ramblings don’t help much.
As a result, the whole play, its intentions notwithstanding, feels more like a tale of two Saras, neither one quite settled. And as for some important questions, where is the line between promotion and exploitation? Between voyeurism and witnessing? They still hover over the stage long after the final curtain. This is a shame because Saartjie’s story has a lot to tell us about not only about colonial attitudes towards people of color, but about our current times as well.
“Voyeurs de Venus” continues at Moxie through September 9. Moxie typically hosts some fascinating talkbacks with its shows. The talkback Saturday, September 8th features the engaging Starla Lewis, Professor Emerita, who will lead a discussion grappling with female body image, self-esteem, healing, and transcending racism and sexism in our modern world.
For more information on tickers and show times, please see Moxie Theatre.