Ends Jun 04


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

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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Reviews (86)

See: Critics' Reviews | Members' Reviews
Avg Score

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


"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

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

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

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

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

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


“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


"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


"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

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

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

Stage Buddy

"Jah gives a spectacularly humanistic portrayal of a woman who is passed from man to woman to man as an object of spectacle, desire, and, ultimately, science...Parks has a mastery of language, her lines bursting with poetry. 'Venus' has dark and difficult subject matter that Parks treats with utmost humanity, and the beauty of the language does much to counterbalance the brutality of The Venus’ life." 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

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

See: Critics' Reviews | Members' Reviews
Avg Score

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.

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.

Raunchy, Indulgent, Great staging

See it if like seeing the abasement and abuse of women, a bit of racism and freaks. The sets are nice.& bit of history re the Brits & Africa tribes.

Don't see it if are easily upset.

Absorbing, Edgy, Thought-provoking, Interesting, Discomforting

See it if you're intrigued by a true story of a 19th century African woman exploited by a white society for her physicality.

Don't see it if you don't want to be made uncomfortable.

Great acting, Intelligent, Resonant, Great writing, Great staging

See it if Beautifully staged retelling of Hottentot Venus focusing on strength, resilience, complicity filtered through a stylized theatrical lens

Don't see it if U want straight line narrative and don't want difficult themes of colonialism, racism, body shaming/beauty ideals and abuse of black bodies

Recent suzan-lori parks is wonderful; venus is not recent parks

See it if the best reason to see is the dignified and humanizing performance of the amazing Zainab Jah as the exploited Hottentot Venus

Don't see it if many hyper-stylized scenes cartoonish; weak vs. Elephant Man as insightful indictment of response to "freaks"; EM moved me, this didn't

Ambitious, Edgy, Intense, Thought-provoking, Relevant

See it if Parks' drama perhaps more timely today then when written. deBessonet's stylized production both frightens & alienates Jab's Venus poignant

Don't see it if Brechtian production disallows much sympathy & Parks' narrative structure confusing at times but Jab's complex performance pulls us along

Ambitious, Intelligent, Relevant, Disappointing, Slow

See it if you've never seen the play onstage, want to engage with difficult, relevant, profound text, want to see a lovely complex lead performance.

Don't see it if you'll be frustrated by the direction fighting against the material, want even/consistent quality, are uncomfortable with simulated nudity.

Great writing, Cliched, Dated

See it if if you like Suzan-Lori Parks' poetic narrative style.

Don't see it if this did not work for me, despite all of the staging resources.

Sad, Ambitious, Great acting, Intelligent, Thought-provoking

See it if Sometimes looking for a better life isn't all it's cracked up to be. Ensemble is excellent. Zainab Jah is heartbreaking, as is the story.

Don't see it if you are not interested in the topical themes of social, racial and sexual exploitation, along with the pain and suffering this can cause.

Also The play's story and statements are clear. Unfortunately, there is too... Read more Read less

Quirky, Relevant, Disturbing, Great staging, Fantastical

See it if exploitation of race, sex, body and trust based on a historical event, themes still relevant today interests you

Don't see it if a more straightforward presentation of this event, instead of a fantastical allegoric way, is what you prefer

Ambitious, Great acting, Slow, Entertaining

See it if you want to see an unconventional play with a strong performance by the central character, complete with a Greek chorus.

Don't see it if you're not into quirky plays.

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?

Ambitious, Clever, Intelligent, Intense

See it if A provocative play that grew on me after seeing it the lead actress is very good

Don't see it if Looking for a traditional production

Absorbing, Clever, Entertaining, Great staging

See it if you like oddball, non-linear, well done theater

Don't see it if you can't follow a jump around plot, you are uncomfortable with freakshow performers

Absorbing, Great acting, Intelligent, Profound, Entertaining

See it if you want to understand the long relationship between Europeans and Africans and how they viewed them. It can be unsettling.

Don't see it if you still hold out-of-date views of what is right an what is wrong. Or for that matter you want a show with a nice ending.

Great acting, Intelligent, Intense, Thought-provoking, Relevant

See it if race interests you, you don't mind theater that leaves you hurting. Quite dark in what it shows. Painful with the truth of history.

Don't see it if You want a happy ending, race history doesn't interest you.

Ambitious, Great acting, Thought-provoking, Banal, Confusing

See it if you like historical pieces, academic theater, or Brechtian methods.

Don't see it if you're looking for a traditional drama in which actors 'embody' their characters, or if you're easily bored.

Banal, Disappointing, Overrated, Slow

See it if you want to meet a talented young actress; Zainab Jah

Don't see it if you expect an interesting and new story.

Also Except for Zainab Jah this is a very poorly directed and acted product... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Great acting, Thought-provoking, Profound, Great staging

See it if you are OPEN for a theatrical experience like never before.

Don't see it if you are not up for seeing RAW EMOTION displayed so vividly on a stage.

Also From the moment the actress Zainab Jah becomes The Venus Hottenot righ... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Great acting, Resonant, Entertaining

See it if You want a heartfelt and sometimes humorous portrayal of a sad story.

Don't see it if You can't handle "simulated nudity".

Intense, Profound, Relevant

See it if You want to be challenged by incredible writing and acting, inventive staging and thought provoking story.

Don't see it if You want to be amused and not have your mindset challenged.

Ambitious, Edgy, Intelligent, Relevant, Slow

See it if you want to think about race, gender and sexuality issues set in the 19th century.

Don't see it if you are uninterested in how 'difference' is manifested in terms of race/sex identities.

Ambitious, Clever, Great acting, Intelligent, Thought-provoking

See it if you are interested in the sad and disturbing history, you are a fan of Parks' work

Don't see it if You are extremely sensitive to cruelty, you don't like exaggeration in historical stories.