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Venus (play)

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Written bySuzan-Lori Parks
CharactersSarah Baartman
Original languageEnglish
SubjectRace and ethnicity
Setting19th-century London, england

Venus (1996) is a play by Suzan-Lori Parks. It chronicles the fictional life-story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, beginning from her life as an attraction for 19th-century British audiences as the Hottentot Venus and ending with her death. The work is not intended to be historically accurate, but rather uses the concept of Baartman's career to explore colonization and objectification; as Parks explained, "most of it's fabricated... It's questioning the history of history... It embraces the unrecorded truth."[1] It won 2 OBIE Awards in 1995-1996.[2]


Inspired by the true-life story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, the Venus provides a fictional account of her life abroad in 19th century London. She is lured away from her home in South Africa with the promise of riches and is put on display for British and Parisian audiences.[3] After being sold to the owner of a sideshow known as The Mother-Showman, she is exhibited for her steatopygia and is given the stage name "The Hottentot Venus." Baartman's "act" leads to a prospering business, with Europeans all over traveling to see the display of her genitalia and buttocks.[4] The Baron Docteur takes interest in Saartjie; he buys her from the Mother-Showman and takes her with him to Paris as his mistress.[5] However, the Baron Docteur has plans to study her steatopygia after her death. When she contracts gonorrhea from the Baron Docteur, he conspires with his Grade-School Chum to have her jailed until her death.[6] After her untimely death in the jail cell in Paris, a plaster cast of her body along with her skeleton is displayed at the Musée de l'Homme.[7]

Production history

Venus was produced by George C. Wolfe in conjunction with The Joseph Papp Public Theater, The New York Shakespeare Festival, and the Yale Repertory Theatre.[2] The play opened at the Public Theater on April 16, 1996 and closed on June 19, 1996 after 22 performances. It was directed by Richard Foreman, with Adina Porter as Saartjie Baartman and Peter Francis James as the Baron Docteur.[8][9]

The play opened Off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre on May 15, 2017. Directed by Lear deBessonet, the cast features Zainab Jah as Baartman.[10]


Venus has been examined by a number of scholars, including Lisa Anderson who analyzed it as a commentary on the femininity and sexuality of women of African descent.[11] Theatre and cinema scholar Jean Young states that the ahistorical portrayal "reifies the perverse imperialist mind set, and [Parks'] mythic historical reconstruction subverts the voice of Saartjie Baartman;" she further points out the ironic re-objectification of Baartman in its attempt to portray her story.

However, other critiques argue that the portrayal actually objectifies the colonizers instead of the heroine.[1][12] New York Times critic Ben Brantley stated that Parks "doesn't present Baartman as just an uncomprehending victim", implying that Parks had written Baartman in way that suggested that Baartman prolonged her own imprisonment for the sake of fame.[13] Conversely, Jennifer Larson writes that Baartman's character "certainly engages the imperial/hegemonic/white power with innovative and creative tactics, but these tactics are not historically unique."[14]



  1. ^ a b Philip C. Kolin (17 August 2010). Suzan-Lori Parks: Essays on the Plays and Other Works. McFarland. pp. 78–. ISBN 978-0-7864-5754-0.
  2. ^ a b "Venus". Lortel Archives. Retrieved 31 May 2014.
  3. ^ Parks, Suzan-Lori (1998). Venus: a play. New York: New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc. p. 18. ISBN 0822215675.
  4. ^ Parks, Suzan-Lori (1998). Venus: a play. New York: New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc. p. 39. ISBN 0822215675.
  5. ^ Parks, Suzan-Lori (1998). Venus: a play. New York: New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc. p. 94. ISBN 0822215675.
  6. ^ Parks, Suzan-Lori (1998). Venus: a play. New York: New York:Dramatists Play Service, Inc. p. 145. ISBN 0822215675.
  7. ^ Parks, Suzan-Lori (1998). Venus: a play. New York: New York Dramatists Play Service, Inc. p. 160. ISBN 0822215675.
  8. ^ Parks, Suzan-Lori (1998). Venus: a play. New York: New York Dramatists Play Service, Inc. p. 3. ISBN 0822215675.
  9. ^ Venus, 1996, retrieved May 15, 2017
  10. ^ Clement, Olivia. "Suzan-Lori Parks’ 'Venus' Opens Off-Broadway" Playbill, May 15, 2017
  11. ^ Lisa M. Anderson (January 2008). Black Feminism in Contemporary Drama. University of Illinois Press. pp. 56–. ISBN 978-0-252-03228-8.
  12. ^ Young, Jean (1997). "The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus". African American Review. 31 (5): 699–700. doi:10.2307/3042338.
  13. ^ Brantley, Ben (May 3, 1996). "Of an Erotic Freak Show and the Lesson Therein". New York Times.
  14. ^ Larson, Jennifer (2012). Understanding Suzan-Lori Parks. South Carolina: The University of South Caroline Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-61117-107-5.
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Venus (play)
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