Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bum rap

From left: Saartjie Baartman; a Victorian bustle; and Kim Kardashian.

"The facts are horrible. The play that Lydia R. Diamond has built from them is beautiful. In the tension between these two conditions lies art."

That's what Louise Kennedy of the Globe said about Voyeurs de Venus, the play by Lydia R. Diamond now wrapping its Boston premiere by Company One. And it would be a very moving statement, if it weren't complicated by the fact that a) playwright Diamond distorts the facts about her subject, Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. "The Hottentot Venus," and b) her play is transparently a piece of propaganda - or really, just a clever career move - rather than "art."

Not that I expect anyone to pay much attention to the real Ms. Baartman, or the actual quality of this show. Agitprop that expertly exploits the politics of its day is always held up, for a time, as pure art, before eventually being re-, and de-valuated. Such will be the case with Voyeurs de Venus. But in the meantime, it's a hit - precisely because it flatters and titillates its audience while appearing to take on a taboo (that show-biz "perfect storm" sought by every showman from P.T. Barnum to Larry Flynt).

So I sat through it the other night in resignation, and accepted the show as a form of (light) penance for all the truly horrific sins against Saartjie Baartman. Only any thoughtful observer would have to conclude that it's a false penance, because Voyeurs doesn't exorcise the exploitation of Ms. Baartman so much as re-animate it - then, it was sold as science; now, it's sold as feminist guilt. To me, that only makes this year's model hypocritical, not beautiful, but I have to admire its marketing. And to be fair, Diamond has constructed a pretty thorough, if fragmented, X-ray of the nexus of sex and race through the juxtaposition of her protagonists, Ms. Baartman and her fictional biographer, Sara Washington (Marvelyn McFarlane and Kortney Adams, at left); she simply has dodged or denied the meaning of that juxtaposition.

And the case of Ms. Baartman is (as usual) far more complex than the playwright would have us know. Diamond keeps insinuating that Baartman was paraded around naked (few scholars agree), was used as a sexual plaything by dozens of men (again, unlikely, although she probably fell eventually into prostitution), and was even transported in a shipping crate (again, a legend). The conditions of her exhibition were degrading enough - she was displayed in form-fitting sheaths, with hanging feathers and ornaments hinting at her supposedly outsized labia (racial sexual differences were a Victorian obsession); and her viewers felt free to poke at her (and she would sometimes hit back).

Still, her sad situation was not unusual - she was only one of many human sideshows in London at the time, and Diamond never clues us in that abolitionists sued for - and won - Baartman's release from her supposed servitude, and raised money for her repatriation(she had been enslaved in South Africa, but slavery was illegal in England). At the trial, however, it was revealed that Baartman was actually not enslaved, but under contract to her exhibitor; she dropped out of sight, then re-surfaced in Paris some years later, being exhibited by an animal trainer, S. Réaux. This marked a new level of de-humanization, and she soon attracted the attention of naturalist Frédéric Cuvier, "the father of anatomy," and posed nude for images for his "Natural History of Mammals," in which she was accorded all the dignity of an ape. Poor Saartjie died only a year later, by differing accounts from syphilis or pneumonia. But her final indignity was to occur post mortem; Baartman had always refused requests to appear naked, or expose her genitalia in public. But after obtaining possession of her corpse, Cuvier issued a detailed report regarding same, and even preserved her genitalia, brain, and skeleton - in fact, her skeleton and a plaster cast of her body remained on display in Paris until the 1970s. Her remains were finally repatriated to South Africa, at Nelson Mandela's request, in 2002, and given proper burial. Amusingly enough, the Musée de l’Homme, which had displayed Baartman for something like a century, replaced her exhibit with one extolling the virtues of "diversity."

Dr. Cuvier goes all medieval on poor Saartjie in Voyeurs de Venus.

Horrifying, no? And certainly worthy of dramatization. But for some reason Diamond feels the need to embellish this grotesque history (above) - in her version, for instance, Cuvier actually poisons Baartman (wasn't he creepy enough already?), and jerks off to descriptions of African genitalia. Meanwhile, the playwright seems hyper-aware of the cultural significance of the "Hottentot Venus" anatomy (the Victorian bustle was only the first of many homages - see Lopez, Jennifer, and Kardashian, Kim), yet can only react to this cultural imagery with horror (her modern heroine dreams about butts and tits repeatedly, then wakes up screaming). And weirdly, Diamond constructs a parallel, modern version of Baartman's story for her lead, but then ignores completely its implications.

This even though the parallels between Diamond's modern-day Sara and back-in-the-day Saartjie are almost too obvious (in case you didn't know, "Saartjie" even means "little Sarah"). Like Little Sarah, Modern Sara senses her professional career depends on her African womanhood, and so she exploits that identity accordingly; only modern Sara is a skinny, "white-acting-and-appearing" Ph.D. who's "beautiful and smart", but worries that people don't really appreciate how articulate she is - about as far from the illiterate "Hottentot Venus" as one could imagine. On the down low, however, Modern Sara's actually emulating her subject: she cheerfully admits to sleeping her way through much of college, and even betrays her (white) husband and beds her (black) editor once she lands the contract to write a big coffee-table book (sorry, "novel" - with pictures) on Little Sarah. Like her subject, she is deep into self-exploitation - only she doesn't seem to realize it; instead, she pisses and moans no end about whether or not she's exploiting Baartman. Of course she's doing that too - she's whoring herself and pimping her subject (as is the playwright). But because she feels all guilty about it, we sense we're expected to forgive her - or at least sympathize.

Today's worshippers of the "Hottentot Venus" are black, not white.

Well, sorry, but count me out; if you don't want to exploit your sister, then don't take the money, honey. To be blunt, Modern Sara is, as she puts it herself, a "narcissistic bitch," and I soon grew tired of her complex regarding those juicier than herself, as well as her phony self-lacerations - and forget about those late-night screams; I mean, when I see tits, even I don't do that! And I kept waiting for Diamond to somehow connect her heroine's inner dialogue with the outer structure she was ensconced in - surely, I thought, the scales are going to fall from this woman's eyes at some point! But no such luck. I sometimes wondered if Diamond didn't intend her entire play as a kind of meta-satire of the collegiate consensus on race and sex; but if so, Company One and its audience don't seem to have connected the dots. Yes, Modern Sara looks a little uncomfortable when she accepts an award for acting as Saartjie's modern-day Cuvier - but does she realize that she's subbing for both exploited and exploiter? I don't think so.

So why, exactly, is this play so internally contradictory? Why does it operate as more of an academic strategy, a kind of PowerPoint presentation onstage, then it does as a drama? Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Diamond seems aware that the imagery of the "Hottentot Venus" is still very much with us, but can't explicitly admit that its racist frame has been turned upside down. The Victorians sublimated Baartman's behind into the bustle; today, women like Ice-T's wife (at left) actually have their derrières surgically enhanced, and show off the results (for awhile, this was the most popular plastic surgery in America). And this new standard of beauty is not being enforced by white colonialists, but by African-Americans themselves. Yet Diamond seems intent on making these sexual images a manifestation of racism, perhaps internalized racism - she just never writes any convincing scenes demonstrating this counter-intuitive thesis.

Indeed, in terms of its seeming themes - and its many dance numbers - the play is both overlong and yet bizarrely underwritten. It proffers one provocation after another - white girls in grass skirts, and Africans in bustles, and minstrel shows and horror movies - but doesn't offer any actual scenes to make sense of them. It's kind of like a grab-bag of ideas sparked by Saartjie Baartman (an academic brain-dump, if you will), without any of the dramatic winnowing and honing and analysis that should have come next. True, I have to say Company One hasn't done badly by the resulting mess. The set (a rotating wheel around an oh-so-symbolic bed) may be noisy, but it's apt, and several performances are thoughtful and striking (including both Saras, Kortney Adams and Marvelyn McFarlane), while others are amusingly tongue-in-cheek (Michael Steven Costello, as the crazily tumescent Cuvier). Others, it's true, are more naively rendered, and director Summer L. Williams doesn't really know what to make of this thematic car crash - still, she keeps things moving, and there's certainly always something to watch (entrails, boobs, you name it). But I couldn't help but think, as the curtain fell, of poor Saartjie Baartman. She's still waiting for a real play to do her justice - and a real playwright, too.


  1. Mr. Garvey:
    Saartjie Baartman need not wait "for a real play -- and a real playwright." There has been one for some time: "Venus" by Suzan-Lori Parks. There was a fine production by the Yale Rep in 1996, and it moved on to Joe Papp's Public Theater, winning Parks her second Obie along with the Blackburn Prize. The play was published by TCG in 1997.
    Caldwell Titcomb

  2. I haven't seen Venus - although you've jogged my memory and I do recall hearing about it in the past. I'm not generally a fan of Suzan-Lori Parks, however - and the piece by her I directed from "365 Plays" was the weakest text I've ever worked on. Parks generally seems so prone to trendy politicization and theory that I wonder at her ability to draw a portrait of Baartman that includes the troubling information that at some level, she colluded in her plight. (As I hope my review made clear, Lydia Diamond seems to imply this subliminally, or perhaps unconsciously, but doesn't know how to dramatize it.) Still, perhaps I'm selling Ms. Parks short, and Ms. Baartman has already been done justice on stage.