There’s no simple way to describe “Venus,” a play put on by The Rude Mechanicals premiering this weekend at the Mendelssohn Theatre.
There’s the story of a South African woman taken from her country and brought into Europe for the sole purpose of exploitation. There’s the notion that what is termed “exoticism” is often a euphemism for “aberration.” And there’s the recognition that certain cruelties from the past are not so far removed from the present.
“Venus” is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzie Lorie Parks’s dramatic interpretation of the life of South African woman Saartjie Baartman. During the 19th century, Baartman was showcased around Europe as a purported freak show and ultimately dissected because of the public’s fascination with her large rear end. Baartman’s story would be laughable if it was simply a creation of the playwright’s wit and not a verifiable part of history.
“The Rude Mechanicals,” a student-run theater group for non-Theater School students, chose the rather obscure “Venus” as its winter production because of its unconventional subject matter said producer and Engineering senior Lauren Michniacki.
“We’re for people who do theater because they love it,” Michniacki said. “The majority of us aren’t theater majors.”
LSA sophomore Queencilia Onyebuchi, who plays the title role of “Hottentot Venus,” prepared to taking on such a daunting character by researching Baartman’s doomed existence.
“Her life was actually a tragedy,” Onyebuchi said. “I don’t think enough light is shed upon her as a person in history.”
LSA senior and director Hyatt Michaels aided the play’s unconventional topic with an avant-garde stage aesthetic and offbeat costumes and makeup. The actors, dressed solely in black, red and white, have painted faces to resemble mimes, an idea Michaels drew from the Surrealist movement. The stage, also primarily black with slight splashes of white and red, was conceived with a desire for discreetness.
“I wanted people to focus on Venus,” Michaels said. “I concentrated on just a few colors, because I wanted the attention to be on the story and not (things like) the costumes.”
The story of the Hottentot Venus – “Venus” referring to the Greek goddess admired for her unrivaled beauty, and “Hottentot” being the name of a group of South African peoples – is an example of blatant inhumanity. The play is uncomfortable at times because it addresses this inhumanity, something that Michaels wanted to stress.
“I took a lot of inspiration from the Dada movement,” Michaels said, referring to the early 20th century cultural movement that was characterized by its use of art as protest.
If the notion of Baartman’s backside being poked and prodded in the name of “science” doesn’t push buttons, Michaels’s song selection might just speed the process along. Although the play’s topics are generally unnerving, giddy ’70s tunes such as “The Hustle” make their way into some of the scenes.
“I used a lot of funk and disco,” Michaels said. “Such playful sounds going along with darker elements of the play pushes buttons by the use of clashing elements.”
RC senior Luke Randall, who plays Barron Docteur, the anatomist who falls in love with Venus but spends much of the play exploiting her, sees the timeless resonance in his character’s perspective.
“It’s the age-old internal conflict: the societal pressure versus what the heart wants,” Randall said.
Although “Venus” bluntly tackles issues of race and female objectification, Michaels’s take on the production isn’t so black and white.
“One of the things that’s annoyed me is that the first thing people ask me about the play is ‘that’s a play about race, right?'” Michaels asked. “But it’s not only a play about race, it’s not only a play about black women, it’s a play about people. I think you could have anyone from any exotic background in Venus’s place – it’s about how we treat each other.”