Among the many plays Lydia Diamond has written “Voyeurs de Venus” (2006), “The Bluest Eye” (2007) and “Stick Fly” (2008), Moxie Theatre in Rolando produced the first two and the now defunct Mo’Olelo the third.
I’ve always been impressed with Diamond’s plays; the subject matter, and characterizations and the overall messages she shares. "Venus” is the most jolting and jarring.
Moxie Theatre is at it again with founding mother Decilia Turner Sonnenberg at the helm directing as she did in 2013 “Bluest Eye” that takes place in Ohio. “Venus” takes us on a different journey, a journey that begins in South Africa 1800’s and ends in current day Chicago 2002.
|Joy Yvonne Jones|
For a brief history (some might dispute all the facts) but one that is new to yours truly, the Venus in Diamond’s play is an indigenous woman from southwest Africa whose name was Saartjie Baartman (Joy Yvonne Jones). She was a dancer, a mother and a drummer who grew up serving French and Dutch colonists. She spoke English, Dutch and some French.
At some point in her life one of her adoptive ‘parents’ sent her to Europe where she became somewhat of an oddity after she was sent into the trafficking trade and was dubbed “Hottentot Venus” a slur that followed her throughout.
In the nineteenth century racial ‘science’ and popular culture considered her unusually large backside as exotic and hypersexual.
Call it exploitive; call it racial profiling, history or just plain voyeurism for the sexually repressed but when she arrived in England she was put on display (having been shipped in a shipping crate) by one Alexander Dunlop (Fred Harlow) and stood naked in a cage while European women (and men) gawked at her.
These images continued even after her death where she found no peace as her genitalia were dissected (by Georges Cuvier scientist/professor at the Museum of Natural History in Paris) and a wax mold of her large buttocks remained on display in a French museum until recently.
Here the play gets dark and somewhat difficult to watch as the bloody mess is on display for everyone’s imagination to conjure up whatever pictures pop into mind. Call it exploitive; call it racial profiling, history or just plain sensationalism.
The story doesn’t end here.
|Cashae Monya and Justin Lang|
Into the mix, Diamond introduces another African woman, Sara Washington (Cashae Monya) a contemporary scholar, a writer and an anthropologist writing a book about Baartman’s story. She struggles with the history, as the past is juxtaposed with her now findings and the graphic nature of that history, one that borders on her own exploitation of a woman she, Sara, felt was exploited.
The play toggles back and forth in time and place, past and present where we meet both women, one dancing a tribal dance in her native Africa, the other in bed with her husband James (Justin Lang) in Chicago.
She’s promoting a book deal he’s a patient and loving husband and sociologist, but the marriage is in trouble. Sara’s meetings with book publishers Carl Richards (Max Macke) and African American James Bradford, (Cortez Johnson) become more difficult to sell.
|Cortez Johnson and Cashae Monya|
Because of her many doubts about the very same concerns she had around the victimization of her subject, she too is challenged about whether to go ahead with the deal or not. Her meetings with Bradford test her vulnerability their mutual attraction and finally her need to succeed as in spite of her conflicts.
With her steady and expert direction, Sonnenberg and her excellent cast take us through tribal dances (Michael Mizerani) dressed in Shelly Williams costumes, time and space sequences (Justin Humphries three different locations emphasized by Nate Parde’s lighting design) and the trials and tribulations of Sara’s dilemmas giving us a bird’s eye view into how complicated both of these women were and are.
As usual Cashae Monya is spot on target as the go getter author /anthropologist bustling with ideas, trying to keep her marriage fresh and wavering between exploiting her book subject and her need for recognition. Ms. Monya’s energy and complete immersion in her role as Sara Washington is without flaw.
|Joy Yvonne Jones and Cortez Johnson|
Newcomer to yours truly, Joy Yvonne Jones approached the role of Saartjie Baarrtman with dignity and conviction. As the abused young woman, her steadfast comportment, nonverbal at times, says volumes. In contrast Cortez Jonson’s Booker, the one who has to give the OK to Washington’s book deal is confident, somewhat arrogant and most of all, seductive and provocative.
Justin Lang is both loving and accepting husband to Sara and the acclaimed Dr. Cuvier who considered Saartjie to be the missing link between humans and animals. He wins a gold star for the quickest costume changes.
|Nancy Ross and Justin Lang|
Nancy Ross is fine as Millicent Duncent, Cuvier’s assistant and the two dancers Jocelynn Johnston and Ashley Strwart round out a most talented cast enabling Diamond’s work to have been given a serious outing.
But for Diamond and those of us wrestling with the question: “By doing this play, is she herself exploiting Saartjie Baartman?”
Diamond thinks not adding: “But I understand if someone felt differently, I would accept that.” You be the judge.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Sept. 9th.
Organization: Moxie Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 6663 El Cajon Blvd. San Diego, CA92115
Ticket Prices: $28.00-$38.00
Photo: Moxie Theatre