Members say: Great acting, Thought-provoking, Ambitious, Relevant, Intelligent

About the show

Signature Theatre revives Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' exploration of the life of Saartjie Baartman, aka the "Hottentot Venus."

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Traveling from her home in southern Africa for what she hoped would be a better life, Saartjie Baartman became an unfortunate star on the 19th-century London freak show circuit. This Obie Award-winning play gives vibrant life to Baartman’s journey to London, her rise to fame as the “Hottentot Venus,” and her eventual relationship with a French scientist. Inspired by her true story, 'Venus' is a tragic-carnival, a devastating tale honoring the life of Baartman and examining the way we live and love today.

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See: Critics' Reviews | Members' Reviews

The New York Times

"A patchy revival...This latest reincarnation has a new clarity that illuminates both the script’s prescience and its flaws. Directed by Lear deBessonet, the play reveals itself to be an unexpectedly traditional piece by the standards of Ms. Parks...Yet Ms. deBessonet’s production as a whole never achieves a compelling unity of vision...That’s partly to do with the script...And for the most part, the talented cast doesn’t yet match the stylish precision of its surroundings." Full Review


"A vivid, visually striking revival by the young director Lear deBessonet. As tragic as the tale is, resilience, humor and love run through the show...Using extreme stylization, Parks creates a distance from the story’s fundamental sadness, and the show never devolves into a treaty on racism and colonialism...Besides Jah, who imbues her character with a sensitive balance of pathos and dignity, the production benefits from an excellent ensemble." Full Review


"Balancing pathos, power, and sensuality, Zainab Jah shows us the complex woman behind the stage figure...deBessonet's perfectly cold and tense production begins with Jah making a quiet, unemotional ritual out of putting on a padded flesh-toned suit replicating Baartman's figure...‘Venus’ is aggressively unsentimental, so when Baartman continually prompts her lover to demonstrate his affection with her naïve inquiry, ‘Love me?,’ the tragedy is heartbreaking.” Full Review


"Emotional and intellectual ambiguities make 'Venus' incredibly difficult to sit through, and yet, they are also what make it such an intriguing work...Baartman could easily be portrayed as a helpless victim, but Parks' imagined narrative—as well as Jah's complex performance—obscure anything cut-and-dried about the mythology that has come to surround her...Jah is superb at maneuvering the intricacies of such a complicated character." Full Review

The Huffington Post

"Viewed today, with the author’s intentions presumably more intact than they were 20 years ago, 'Venus' is revealed as an intriguing and arresting work...The playwright’s incisive, probing imagination matched with clearly inborn theatricality is very much in evidence...Parks tells her story in grand style, with four principals plus a very busy ensemble...Jah is altogether wonderful as Venus...DeBessonet does a masterful job, building a colorful and wild sideshow around the star attraction." Full Review

Lighting & Sound America

"Both overelaborate and undercooked, a series of mirthless cartoons that state and restate its theme to diminishing effect…Despite some very fine work in the title role by the sly, smoky-voiced Zainab Jah -- it never becomes the gripping, revelatory indictment it means to be…None of these moments come together to create a coherent portrait,,,deBessonet's production often feels lacking in energy, despite its highly qualified cast.” Full Review

Time Out New York

"In the two decades since its Public Theater debut, Suzan-Lori Parks’s 'Venus' has lost none of its power to unsettle and appall. If anything, the story of Saartjie Baartman’s exploitation at the hands of early-19th-century human traffickers—some venal, some high-minded—has gained in shock value. Its current revival, directed by Lear deBessonet, is devastating...Jah brings an unaffected dignity to Baartman’s quest, even as she begs for validation." Full Review

DC Theatre Scene

“Jah’s performance is the best thing about deBessonet’s highly stylized, colorfully designed revival…If it’s a circus that’s their model, it’s one with many sideshows. Parks does not wish to be restricted to any one style or focus…While the principal cast and the ensemble all do fine work, it is Jah’s performance that carries the show. She provides a focus otherwise lacking. She embodies a character whose complexity makes her more interesting than just a victim or a symbol of oppression.” Full Review

Front Row Center

"Makes you sit up and pay attention–even if you don’t want to. Now, the only reason you would not want to pay attention is that this is a sad, even horrific, story of how far a civilized society can go to disrupt what they do not understand...This is a mighty cast who play so many characters it makes your head spin. Each performance is finely tuned, and the direction of Lear DeBessonet brings the entire production to full-throttled life." Full Review

Theatre's Leiter Side

“'Venus'…is overlong…and frequently lifeless. Much of it is juvenile and lacking in wit, its structure as misshapen as the woman whose story it dramatizes…Fortunately, it gets a finely nuanced performance from Jah, who brings charm and intelligence to playing this unusual, abused, enslaved, yet determined woman…The talented DeBessonet's effortful production can do little to blanket the play's weaknesses…At times it feels that someone's sucked the music out of what should have been a musical.” Full Review

AM New York

"'Venus' is pageant-like, intellectual and reminiscent of 'The Elephant Man.' And now Lear deBessonet has staged an excellent revival of the play...Whether the play’s bold and self-aware theatricality adds to or detracts from the impact of the storytelling is up for debate. But thanks to superb production values and an absorbing and ambiguous performance from Jah, 'Venus' works over the audience like an intoxicating spell." Full Review

Times Square Chronicles

"A visually beautiful and etherial production...You see van Gogh’s work in a way you have never seen it before...Hudson plays van Gogh and though he has terrific facial expressions and looks like van Gogh, his vocals are off-putting...Wolf’s script becomes monotonous if not given a certain resonance...Makes you appreciate art not being recognized despite being a genius and the pain of mental illness. I left the theatre wanting to know more and feeling life is but a starry night." Full Review

Times Square Chronicles

"Like most racially charged plays, a major fact has been bastardized...The play is highly poetic, theatrical with a bleeding of song. The script skips around in time so, in a way, things are never fully coherent and seem dreamlike, well, more of a nightmare. Zainab Jah is prolific as Venus. She shows us her Venus layer by layer, as she is stripped and pawed...Lear deBessonet's staging is interesting as she adds a macabre circus-like staging to jar us out of complacency." Full Review

New York Daily News

"An absorbing revival...The story is quite straightforward. The storytelling is highly theatrical. The script flows with poetry, music and moments that pop, like when the dexterous Zainab Jah slips into character as Venus. Director Lear deBessonet guides a fine ensemble and evocative staging. As 'Venus' goes from gritty carnival sideshow to fancy French domestic setting, it reminds that cruelty and objectification are at home in both places." Full Review


“By turns moving and didactic…Parks’s Brechtian flourishes work effortfully to distance us from the tale. But Jah and deBessonet play against such archness, determined to bring us into Saartjie’s emotional world, which is one of naivete, enchantment and disillusion…deBessonet delivers some magic here, with a carnival-like production given visual resonance in Matt Saunders’ striking scene design…If this works to make Saartjie Baartman more than a symbol, well, all the better.” Full Review


"A visually stunning and finely cast new production...'Venus,' despite the detours from straightforward storytelling and its grotesque chorus, is not all that hard to follow. However, it's painfully hard to watch...This is a study of horrendous exploitation...Jah is magnificently heartbreaking...For all its colorful staging and fine acting, 'Venus' can't quite escape coming off as a rather obvious history lesson, but one, especially Parks' many fans, won't want to miss." Full Review

Talkin' Broadway

"The play does a good job of bringing Saartjie's story to the fore. But over the course of the evening, things become less coherent...'Venus' has much of significance to say about the treatment of women and blacks. But it is a challenging play to pull off without losing its focus, and director deBessonet has not been entirely successful...There is an ironic tone to much of the proceedings, but the clashing styles challenge our ability to immerse ourselves in Saartjie's all-too-human story." Full Review


"Director deBessonet's striking revival of 'Venus,' which is dominated by a brilliant performance by Jah...It makes us look with fresh eyes and a clear mind at such contemporary issues as racism and gender objectification...Among the supporting cast, only the veteran actress Danson makes any real impact....One can leave the theater arguing just how much Baartman is truly a victim or a semi-willing party to her own demise. It’s a question without easy answers, but one worth asking." Full Review

Wolf Entertainment Guide

“At the core is Zainab Jah in the title role, giving a superb, ultimately affecting performance…The more intimate portion of the play provides the strongest emotional connection for an audience, as opposed to the spectacle and overview that captures attention but detracts from the real drama involving a life at stake…All of the cast members are good, but Jah is very special…Ultimately we do feel for this victim of exploitation, and that is the major accomplishment of the play.” Full Review

Financial Times (UK)

"As cultural and psychological analysis, 'Venus' has a keen provocative edge...As drama, 'Venus' is less successful — because its steady fixation on Baartman’s sexual objectification becomes repetitive over the course of two hours...Under Lear deBessonet’s direction, the pacing also seems too uniformly ponderous while the ensemble’s delivery can sound hectoring...In keeping with her character, Jah is more subdued." Full Review


"An adventurous revival...Jah is marvelous here as a woman imprisoned, yet not wholly a victim...Most of the actors in Signature’s production, which features carnival-like and sometimes too-cluttered direction by Lear deBessonet, play multiple roles...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." Full Review


“The problem at the heart of ‘Venus’ is that its author Suzan-Lori Parks does not, fundamentally, trust the strength of her central figure, Miss Saartje Baartman (aka the Venus Hottentot). In her bizarrely overwritten play, the inherent emotional power of this figure goes missing, as if Parks is purposely avoiding an ‘Elephant Man’ redux by showing off every theatrical gimmick in her playwriting arsenal.” Full Review

This Week in New York Blog

"A disappointing, heavily overstylized production...Jah is superb as the Venus...Mambo and Conlee, are fine as well, but the rest of the cast are like amateurish caricatures, which might be the point but it detracts from the narrative nonetheless...Parks and deBessonet get to the heart of the matter early on; the bulk of the two-hour and fifteen-minute protest play merely hammers home the same ideas about gender, race, and cruelty, aspects of humanity still prevalent today." Full Review

Theatre is Easy

"Jah's portrayal of Baartman is luminous. Jah has delicately crafted a sympathetic character, making it very painful to watch her fragile innocence shattered again and again...Parks has a deft touch for writing prose which flows with lyrical wit...In this dazzling production, Parks and deBessonet transform the stage into the Georgian era, boldly taking hold of the historical narrative and refusing to cede it back, giving Baartman’s life the perspective she richly deserves." Full Review


"Admittedly, I can at times find Ms. Parks' elliptical, musical style frustrating, untethered as it is from any narrative center. But with 'Venus,' she places this within a more conventional frame, allowing for a balance of artifice and emotional satisfaction." Full Review

See: Critics' Reviews | Members' Reviews

Exquisite, Great acting, Resonant, Great writing, Devastating

See it if you are interested in drama addressing unbearably cruel racist history via Brechtian alienation style; extraordinary writing & performances

Don't see it if you don't like to be challenged emotionally & intellectually by a story of a woman claiming autonomy in terrible & too current circumstances

Also zainab jah is one of the most powerful performers i've ever seen on st... Read more Read less

Great acting, Thought-provoking

See it if you want to see a Suzan-Lori Parks play with a great cast.

Don't see it if you need to be told everything at every moment. Or want a more coherant production.

Ambitious, Clever, Great acting, Relevant, Great staging

See it if you like great staging and top notch actors.

Don't see it if you're uncomfortable with examination of race, exploitation of women or if you want a musical.

Ambitious, Clever, Edgy, Disappointing, Slow

See it if You enjoy Suza-Lori Parks' work and/or interesting biographical productions. Great cast and set, production value was top notch

Don't see it if The story is important to you. The production surrounded the story with so much fluffy weirdness as to be exhausting.

Quirky, Entertaining, Great staging, Grueling, "extra"

See it if you like shows that explore real-life injustices.

Don't see it if you're not into shows with odd structures and random characters.

Absorbing, Intelligent, Masterful, Great ensemble, Stunning staging

See it if you want to see one of Suzan-Lori Parks best plays. Also, a great central performance by Zainab Jah. Innovative staging.

Don't see it if you do not like avant-garde theatre or if you need to be spoon-fed ideas.

Ambitious, Clever, Confusing, Slow, Great staging

See it if tragedy, colonialism, and historical racism staged as a nonlinear circus sideshow sounds interesting.

Don't see it if you don't like experimental, non-linear, fourth-wall busting theatre. You want something naturalistic.

Also I had read about Sarah Baartman in the past, and I was very excited fo... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Edgy, Thought-provoking, Relevant, Great writing

See it if you're a curious theatergoer (I am) or a fan of Parks' work (recently, I've become one) though you still may leave shaken but mystified.

Don't see it if you're looking for light entertainment.

Edgy, Great acting, Quirky, Great writing, Great staging

See it if you like dramas that are based on true events or stories about unconventional subjects.

Don't see it if you have a difficult time sitting through stories about exploitation and disturbing themes.

Also The design of this show is colorful, vibrant, and quirky. I really enj... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Ambitious, Clever, Edgy, Must see

See it if You like Suzan-Lori Sparks and if you do, you know what time her pieces take. Very dark vaudevillian, exaggerated, eccentric, sad--- at once

Don't see it if Your anti historical pieces, which can make you feel uncomfortable. Racial topics. Cussing. It can be slow, but, picked up. Dark humor

Quirky, Indulgent, Unusual, Over-long

See it if You are interested in an unfairly overlooked historical character and story

Don't see it if You don't like Brechtian and presentational theatrical styles

Also While the subject is intriguing, I felt the author was trying too hard... Read more Read less

Dizzying, Edgy, Intense, Profound, Disturbing

See it if Shocking racism and misogyny in 1810. Tragic love affair. Audience put into awkward roles. Stunning imagery. Immersive and challenging.

Don't see it if You are not prepared for heavy, confrontational, uncomfortable material. You don't like a complex script with shifting tones and layers.

Absorbing, Great acting, Masterful, Great writing, Great staging

See it if You like poetic and artistic productions about culture, race, and society.

Don't see it if You don't enjoy highly artistic and expressionistic plays that can be emotionally despairing.

Absorbing, Ambitious, Relevant, Entertaining

See it if you want to explore a provocative true story of exploitation.

Don't see it if you feel uncomfortable thinking about body issues and how people exploit others in the name of science.

Intelligent, Quirky, Stupefying

See it if you're aching to see one of Suzan-Lori Parks' masterworks onstage in any form

Don't see it if you desire a production with bite and a sense of purpose

Also While the leads deliver wonderful performances, and elements of the de... Read more Read less

Great acting, Intense, Thought-provoking

See it if You appreciate an evocative, poignant retelling of the exploitation of a naive young woman for a body part that's normal in her own world.

Don't see it if You don't like emotionally resonant history plays even if they are well-acted and beautifully staged. You like upbeat endings.

Great acting, Intelligent, Profound, Resonant, Great writing

See it if you are a fan of Suzan-Lori Parks or like theater that is about issues that affect our human condition. Thought-provoking and solidly acted.

Don't see it if you don't like plays that explore the politics of race. It is highly stylized so it's perhaps not the choice for those who like naturalism.

Ambitious, Great acting, Thought-provoking, Historical, Wait for 2nd act

See it if Are a Park fan. Care about the history of racism and appropriations. Appreciate fine acting and creative design. Can't endure a slow Act 1.

Don't see it if You need clear, linear storytelling. Are disturbed by the mistreatment of women or are sensitive to sexual themes.

Epic, Great acting, Great writing, Great staging

See it if you like a provocative staging of Brechtian epic theater with a contemporary material

Don't see it if I really dont see why.. unless you prefer a happy-go-lucky musical

Absorbing, Ambitious, Edgy, Intelligent, Relevant

See it if you are open to non-linear play with many different theatrical styles, depicting a horrifying instance of racism and slavery; unique.

Don't see it if you are expecting a linear, happy show with little to say, a mere entertainment. This is not it. Depictions of cruel treatment throughout

Also I found the historical plot to be captivating and horrifying at the sa... Read more Read less

Ambitious, Intelligent, Relevant, Resonant, Slow

See it if You're interested in historical dramas that use a variety of theatrical devices to tell a story.

Don't see it if You dislike plays that are based on true stories, but that get a bit loose with the truth to get a point across.

Ambitious, Great acting, Intense, Quirky, Interesting

See it if You are already a fan of Suzan-Lori Parks as I hear it is consistent with previous work. You're interested in the specific story being told.

Don't see it if You're not in for a heavy evening (there are some lighter elements but overall it is more disturbing material). You want a traditional show.

Clever, Relevant, Great writing, Disappointing, Great staging

See it if Important story to be told. Beautifully crafted in content and staging.

Don't see it if Disappointing acting from the lead. Would have loved to see a character with agency and intelligence - a fault of the writing or actor?

Absorbing, Exquisite, Great acting, Profound, Riveting

See it if Suzan-Lori Parks beautifully written,socially conscious,historically based play about a woman brought to London to appear in a freak show.

Don't see it if If you are interested in light subjects.

Ambitious, Thought-provoking, Resonant

See it if You'd like a little history, a well crafted powerful story, & yet another instance of how the "cultured" treat the "other."

Don't see it if You can't tolerate a slow developing plot, with a play within a play which is not immediately clear, or don't want cultural comment.