THERE IS A VOYEUR in all of us.
At least that's the assertion of "Venus," the Olney Theatre Center's current production. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the satiric play tells the historically based story of a woman who becomes famous for the enormous size of her buttocks.
Saartjie Baartman journeyed from her home in colonial southern Africa to London and Paris in the early 19th century and became famous as a popular freak-show act billed as the "Hottentot Venus." European audiences were preoccupied with her black skin, her large posterior and rumored atypical genitalia. They found her both horrifying and titillating.
Her exhibition provoked a court case about whether she was seeking fame or if she was being displayed against her will. With themes that deal with exploitation, oppression and the idea that the oppressed are sometimes complicit in their own oppression, Parks's allegorical play challenges audience members to examine their own behavior.
"The play is extremely ironic," said director Eve Muson. "Although it's a very dark, serious, awful subject, it is also funny and ironic. The audience quickly remembers they're laughing at something that is most horrible. It speaks to the natural human tendency to be curious, to wish to peek and to objectify. We all do that, as politically correct as we are."
People were peeking at Baartman even long after her death in 1815. A Parisian anatomist dissected her body when she died, and her skeleton and genitalia remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974.
In 31 short scenes that traverse Africa and Europe, 10 cast members act out the story of a woman whose seemingly grotesque physical differences and otherness trump her desire that people love her for her inner being. The play forces viewers to reflect on their own roles in promoting the domination of non-Western, so-called "exotic" cultures throughout the world. And instead of putting actors in their expected roles, cross-gender and cross-racial casting asks viewers to further ponder oppression in contemporary terms.
The Olney Theatre Center's rendition of "Venus" is a fast-paced story set in a backdrop reminiscent of a circus tent. Similar to a vaudevillian show, each scene varies in style.
Lighthearted scenes of freak shows are interrupted with serious commentary using historical excerpts from the court case, songs written about Baartman and slide-show projections of Venus-inspired cartoons and editorials from period newspapers. The broad range of theatrical devices used to employ the alternating humor and shock that makes up the script "keeps audiences switching gears constantly and constantly upsets their expectations," said Muson, an assistant professor at the School of Theatre Arts at Boston University, where she directed the show in 2002.
The play is not a comfortable journey into the plight of another. In fact, Muson says, it might be uncomfortable even to seasoned theater buffs.
"The audience has to think, 'We live in D.C. and we go to the theater, so we must be people who want to share in the human experience of others,' " Muson said. "But, Mr. Liberally Inclined Person who supports the arts, even you carry prejudices with you wherever you go."
Now that does sound like a challenge.