Twenty-plus years after its New York debut, the Suzan-Lori Parks drama “Venus” is getting an adventurous revival as part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s residency at Signature Center.
With its focus on a woman who was exhibited on the freak-show circuit in 19th century Europe, “Venus” might initially suggest comparisons to “The Elephant Man,” the historical drama about Joseph Merrick. But unlike Merrick, Saartjie Baartman -- who would become known as the “Hottentot Venus" -- wasn’t famous for a deformity, proper.
Rather, she came from the Khoikhoi natives of southwestern Africa, who were observed, as a manner of normal development, to have oversized buttocks. Charles Darwin described examples he’d seen (the genetic condition is called “steatopygia”) as nothing less than a derriere that projects “in a most wonderful manner.”
So, a “deformity”? No. A hindrance in other ways? Yes. Also, as Parks subtly questions here, an opportunity? Well … there’s an argument to be made.
Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) has always acknowledged that the story of “Venus” is fictionalized, but inspired by Baartman, who was a real woman who worked on the London stage. The author has said she wrote “Venus,” which debuted in 1996, as an exploration of objectification.
“Venus” depicts how the men and women of 19th century Europe have ulterior motives when it comes to the protagonist, be they sexual, financial, academic, or some combination of the three. (The word “hottentot” originates from the clicking sounds made by speakers of the native African language, though today it has taken on derogatory meaning.)
Zainab Jah stars as the African woman seduced by promises of a better life to journey to London, where she’s quickly sold off to “The Mother” (Randy Danson) into a form of entertainment industry slavery. Audiences will remember Jah as the ferocious, self-made warrior from the recent Broadway and Off-Broadway productions of Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed.”
Jah is marvelous here as a woman imprisoned, yet not wholly a victim. At the start of the two-act, two-hour plus drama, she walks onstage in a neutral colored bodysuit and dons Venus’ costume, with its bulging, exposed breasts and enormous buttocks -- so, we’ve met this Venus first as a contemporary woman with a “traditional” body. It’s an image that will stay with us even after she’s dressed for a different role.
Most of the actors in Signature’s production, which features carnival-like and sometimes too-cluttered direction by Lear deBessonet, play multiple roles. An exception is Kevin Mambo (“Fela!”) as “The Negro Resurrectionist,” a narrator who introduces the story by telling us what we already suspect: Venus is destined for an untimely death.
While the plot progresses in linear fashion, the Resurrectionist counts scenes backward leading toward the Hottentot’s demise at the hands of so-called scientists.
Venus recognizes what the world views as her chief asset, and she does flaunt it, clinging tenuously to the hope it will provide entree to a better life. Her physical appearance is the reason she will try to negotiate better financial terms from “The Mother,” her carny boss, and also why she agrees to move to Paris with a doctor (John Ellison Conlee), who makes her his mistress.
Empowered? Feminist? Pragmatic? In control? Jah’s Venus is all those things in degrees, in spite of the choices she makes, and the choices that are cruelly made for her. In this revival, the Hottentot’s lifelong adult imprisonments are almost -- almost -- besides the point.
“Venus” through June 4 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $30. Call 212-244-7529.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn