Signature Theatre revives Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' exploration of the life of Saartjie Baartman, aka the "Hottentot Venus." More…
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.
"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
"'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
"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
"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
"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
"Lear deBessonet directs this revival of Parks’s 1996 play with flair and confidence, capitalizing on its numerous styles including Brechtian storytelling, vaudeville, and surreal absurdism...'Venus' is a unique creation by a unique playwright with an urgent voice...In 'Venus,' standards of beauty, the dignity of the female form, and a woman’s control over her body are additional themes that Parks explores with fearlessness and determination." Full Review
"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
"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
"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
"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
"'Venus' uses theatricality as a means to interrogate the moral satisfactions of theater...The play’s themes are delineated through various performance styles, from naturalistic and choral to performative...Jah as Baartman dons a full body suit at the start of the show in full view of the audience. This realistic looking second skin can’t hide the actress’s delicacy, intelligence, and goodness...The troubling questions this tragedy opens up are no less relevant today than they were decades ago." 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
"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
“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
"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
"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
"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 revival features a nuanced and poignant portrayal by Jah…John Ellison Conlee is a compelling Baron Docteur…A pair of stellar performances…Kevin Mambo, The Negro Resurrectionist narrator, keeps the action moving along, although his innumerable 'Footnote' asides and 'Historical Extract' interjections are acquired tastes. Other plot devices, some successful some too clever by half, include an autopsy performed during intermission and a play-within-a-play construct.” Full Review
“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
"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
"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
"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
"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
“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
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.
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
See it if you like powerful and socially relevant theater done with lavish staging and costumes.
Don't see it if you can't put your faith in the playwright and performances and be okay with feeling uncomfortable at moments.
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.
See it if You like to be taken on a journey and love great story telling. It's edgy and controversal but done well and very compelling. Beautiful.
Don't see it if You want something cohesive and easy to follow. This play is all over the place and very abstract.
See it if IF U WANT 2 C LORI PARKS THOUGHT PROVOKING HISTORICALLY BASED HORROR BROUGHT 2 LIFE IN A POETIC FANTASY. BRILLIANTLY ACTED AND STAGED.
Don't see it if IF U DON’T HAVE THE PATIENCE TO GET THRU THE 1ST ACT & WAIT FOR ACT 2 WHICH MAKES U UNDERSTAND ACT I. EXPLAINING ALL/U DONT LIKE GENIUS
See it if you appreciate historical storytelling in a slightly surreal fashion....disturbingly sad but important to not forget out roots
Don't see it if you like straight plays that take no artistic license
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.
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.
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.
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
See it if A true story! Reinforces the injustice of the African American slave. Excellent main character's acting.
Don't see it if You want a musical. A remake of an old play is your thing!
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.
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.
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.
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
See it if You like plays that do interesting things with language and time, mix theater from different traditions, hear a story that's not been heard.
Don't see it if You like straight forward, linear pieces, or only want to see things that make you laugh.
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.
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.
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