Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks
At: The Mill at Athenaeum Theatre,
2936 N. Southport
Phone: 312-902-1500; $20
Through: Oct. 8
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
'Wake up baby, a star is a slave.'
OK, so this metaphoric lyric from the 1981 musical Dreamgirls isn't in Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks' 1996 play Venus, but its literal meaning certainly applies.
The 'star' in question is the South African woman Saarjtie Baartman, otherwise known by her freak-show moniker as 'The Hottentot Venus.' What made Baartman so remarkable to British and French gawkers in the 1810s? Basically, it was her enormous ass and breasts ( picture the ancient 'Venus of Willendorf' sculpture and you have an idea ) .
As Parks repeatedly points out in the play, Baartman became a virtual showbiz slave even after Great Britain had abolished slavery. Baartman's humiliation even goes beyond her death. Her remains were preserved and put on display until 1976.
Despite her tragic life, Parks doesn't just paint Baartman as a victim. Parks instead constructs a non-linear look at the particulars of Baartman's life, encompassing expressionistic theater techniques like puppetry to poetical symbolism ( the likening of Baartman to exotic chocolate is an interesting touch ) .
Controversially, Parks sometimes suggests that Baartman enjoyed her notoriety and fame.
Sometimes Parks' tone is dispassionate and coldly analytical ( especially at intermission when Baartman's physical measurements are recited ) . But it's clear that Parks' enthusiastic fascination for her heroine is boundless.
Parks' Venus provides a marvelous framework for an ambitious theater company to build onto. The folks at The Mill ( formerly known as Experimental Theatre Chicago ) certainly have a field day applying and illustrating Brechtian alienation techniques.
Director Jaclyn Biskup works well with set designer Collette Pollard and to create an exposed big top tent filled with costumer Chelsea Warren's suggestive period costumes.
The large cast eagerly dives into their many roles, particularly the chorus, which switches into distinct crowd members by flipping their sandwich board signs.
Leonard House is adept as 'The Negro Ressurectionist' ringmaster, while Darci Nalepa has haughty fun playing Baartman's various tormentors. As the one romantic glimmer in Baartman's life, Jeremy Young, brings a palpable pain to the married white doctor who is never able to forget the societal condemnation of being in an interracial relationship.
Sad to say that the one performance that could have been better is L'Oreal Jackson's Baartman. Wearing a skeletal body suit to resemble Baartman's curvy shape, Jackson seems a bit too take-it-on-the-chin resigned than to fully show her character's suffering and disappointments. Perhaps it was Biskup's directorial decision for Jackson to underplay Baartman's emotions, but you long for more oomph now and then.
Despite some clunky scene changes and a wanting central performance, The Mill's Venus certainly makes for an entertaining show thanks to Biskup's energetic staging. Venus constantly engages you to critically think and emphasize with Baartman, and it does so without predictably tugging at obvious emotional heart strings.