John Ellison Conlee and Zainab Jah in Venus, directed by Lear deBessonet, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
John Ellison Conlee and Zainab Jah in Venus, directed by Lear deBessonet, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

As Signature Theatre's Residency One playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks has spent the year giving her earlier works a second look with the benefit of a brand-new century to accentuate old truths and reveal new ones. In the fall, she brought back her 1990 drama The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, a.k.a. The Negro Book of the Dead, which questioned how African history is recorded and remembered. Under the direction of Lear deBessonet, Parks continues that conversation with her equally challenging, and perhaps more unnerving work of historical fiction, Venus, which is receiving its first New York production since its 1996 off-Broadway debut at the Public Theater.

Venus is by no means a pleasant, easy two hours of passively absorbing the scenery. It requires active spectators, which, ironically (and probably intentionally on the parts of deBessonet and Parks), is exactly what makes Venus so discomfiting.

The play is named after the real-life Venus Hottentot, a pseudonym used by Saartjie Baartman, who, because of her abnormally large buttocks, was sent from South Africa to England in the early 1800s to join the freak show circuit. Designed by Matt Saunders like a three-ring circus, our leading lady (Zainab Jah) comes center stage to pull on her caricatural body suit (one of the gruesomely freak-show-inspired costumes designed by Emilio Sosa) and pose for us in her new and robust, naked figure. All of a sudden, audiences who were ready to acknowledge the depravity of this story are transformed into the depraved spectators who facilitated it. This, among other emotional and intellectual ambiguities, make Venus incredibly difficult to sit through, and yet, they are also what make it such an intriguing work that has inspired extensive analysis since its original premiere.

Baartman could easily be portrayed as a helpless victim of her circumstances, but Parks' imagined narrative — as well as Zainab Jah's complex performance in the title role — obscures anything cut-and-dried about the mythology that has come to surround her. Yes, in Parks' tale, Baartman is brought to England under the false promise of becoming a wealthy princess. But once she learns her true purpose, she willingly stays, and with a new sense of power, uses her "fame" to bargain for fair compensation. She even agrees to be sold to the Baron Docteur (John Ellison Conlee), accompanying him to Paris where she becomes both his mistress and his science experiment — a subject of observation and an object of love. Meanwhile, Kevin Mambo (who plays the part of Negro Resurrectionist) foretells how things will end for Baartman, maintaining her memory with a collection of "footnotes" as well as songs like a historian who occasionally slips into a mournful eulogy.

Jah is superb at maneuvering the intricacies of such a complicated character. Just as you can't bear to see her subjected to any more humiliation or objectification, she finds ways to prove herself a woman of agency — even she uses that agency in uncomfortable or questionable ways. Conlee is similarly excellent at expressing a sincere love for his aptly named paramour (a reference to Venus, the Roman goddess of love) while simultaneously pursuing his corrupt (and horrifically racist) scientific study.

Historically, his character is based on scientist Georges Cuvier, who dissected Baartman's body after her premature death at the age of 26 in an attempt to identify the missing link between animals and human beings. The details of his findings are shared during intermission when the Baron Docteur reads the details of Baartman's autopsy as audience members noisily shuffle in and out of the theater.

To listen and become one of Baartman's appalling posthumous voyeurs — or to turn a deaf ear to a piece of history? Parks does not seem content ignoring history, and yet, her body of work leaves open many questions about the correct way to engage with it. The only way to start answering those questions — for yourself at least — is to sit in the discomfort and pay attention.