Her name was Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, but in the years of her fame she was called the “Venus Hottentot,” much like Joseph Merrick who, some decades later, would become famous as the “Elephant Man.” Both were human beings exhibited as freaks in 19th-century London, attracted the attention of the medical establishment and, through the rear-view mirror of social history, have become icons of cruel exploitation. Saartjie Baartman deserves a film incarnation as magnificently human as the one that the late John Hurt created for Merrick.

Venus
Joan Marcus

For now, we’re lucky to have the very fine Zainab Jah (Eclipsed) playing the title role in Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks’ by turns moving and didactic account of a fragmented, brief life that began in southern Africa, moved to a London side-show and a Paris atelier, and ended in the morbid display of her remains. Parks – whose career has taken her from working with Oprah Winfrey (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Spike Lee (Girl 6) to a Pulitzer Prize (for Top Dog/Underdog) – unveiled this play over 20 years ago in a splintered staging by the iconoclastic director Richard Foreman. Lear deBessonet’s second look, which opened tonight at the Signature Theatre, is more conventional, which has the odd effect of throwing the deliberately fragmented text of a young playwright into higher relief.

The show begins as Jah, who is slight of frame and has delicate features, dons a nude body suit that transforms her into Saartjie, who has the common physique of the Khoikhoi women, notably very prominent buttocks and pendulous breasts. With the promise of wealth and fine living in a London whose streets are paved in gold, Saartjie leaves her village (the Dutch settlers called the natives Hottentots) and soon finds herself as the top draw in a freak show, where she is exhibited in a cage by day and sexually assaulted at night. She attracts the interest of a married doctor of anatomy from Paris (a most persuasive John Ellison Conlee), who plies her with chocolates and sets her up in a studio, where she lives in comparative luxury as his mistress and subject, raising eyebrows amongst his colleagues even as he speaks frankly of her coming post-autopsy maceration, the report of which will boost his rank in medical academe.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus.”
Joan Marcus

Parks’s Brechtian flourishes – the use of academic jargon by a narrator introducing scenes by number; the interpolation of a mock-Beaumarchais comedy paralleling the main story – work effortfully to distance us from the tale. But Jah and deBessonet, who recently staged the terrific Encores! concert of Big River and is resident director at the Public, plays against such archness, determined to bring us into Saartjie’s emotional world, which is one of naivete, enchantment and disillusion. We’re even left wondering whether the manipulative doctor doesn’t have some smidgen of actual love for her, along with the fetishistic murmurings and callous plans. deBessonet, whose specialty has been in large cast stagings for the Public Works program, delivers some magic here, with a carnival-like production given visual resonance in Matt Saunders’ striking scene design, which draws parallels between the freak show and the hospital amphitheater, and Justin Townshend’s lighting, which ranges from merciless to golden. Emilio Sosa’s costumes are perfect, dressing the cast as society low and high in the two different cities.

If this works to make Saartjie Baartman more than a symbol, well, all the better. As I said, she deserves it.