Venus Background

Venus Background

Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman was a sideshow then a headlining attraction for audiences in Britain in the Nineteenth Century, billed as the Hottentot Venus, and it is at this time in her life that we meet her in Suzan-Lori Parks' play. Written in 1996, the play's plot follows Baartman from fame to death. This is not a biographical play; Baartman's life is the guide-lining framework that Parks uses to explore concepts that include colonization by the British and their quest to build an Empire, as well as objectifying people for entertainment - think the circus freak show Bearded Woman, or the Elephant Man.

Baartman's particular element of freakery was Steatopygia, a condition that afflicted the sufferer with abnormal deposits of tissue and fat on the backside and thighs, creating the image of a Venus de Milo come to life. Audiences travelled from all over the world to see her, and she generated an enormous income for her "owner". The play also gives a horrifying glimpse into the way in which women were considered to be possessions to be bought and sold in a gender-based type of slavery that was never really condemned by the colonial British.

The play opened at the Public Theater on April 16th, 1996, and was directed by George C. Wolfe, closing after only twenty two performances. It starred Adina Porter as Saartjie Baartman. There was also a play revival in 2017 as the play opened Off Broadway. In terms of its own reception, the play was the recipient of the 1995-6 OBIE Award for Parks, who went on to become the first African-American recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 for her play Topdog/Underdog.

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