"The play changes time frames, characters, even geography often, but Sonnenberg has set up the switches expertly and they’re not difficult to follow."
Reality meets fantasy and science cuddles up to exploitation, prejudice, and domination in the local premiere of Lydia Diamond’s fascinating “Voyeurs de Venus,” playing through Sept. 9 at Moxie Theatre.
Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, one of Moxie’s founders, directs this time-shifting and complex play that manages to merge a less-than-funny factual story with dance and a great deal of humor.
Her name was Saartjie Baartman, she was Khoekhoe, part of the nomadic non-Bantu indigenous population of southwestern Africa that originated in the northern area of modern Botswana. She grew up serving British and Dutch colonialists, was bright and quick-witted, spoke English, Dutch and some French in addition to her native language was a dancer and drummer and eventually mothered at least two children.
But she was plucked out of Africa in 1810 by Alexander Dunlop (Fred Harlow) and taken to England for display as an anatomical oddity because of her steatopygia, common among Khoe women. She was called the “Hottentot Venus” (a double insult because “Hottentot” is a derogatory term in itself, and “Venus” implies hypersexuality) because (to put it crudely) she had a big butt.
Diamond frames her story with modern African American cultural anthropologist Sara Washington (Cashae Monya), who in writing a book about Saartjie (Joy Yvonne Jones) has nightmares as she tries to tell the story without exploiting Saartjie even more.
Sara is married to tall, blond sociologist James Bradsford (Justin Lang) – a wonder of loving patience who humors Sara and tries not to get upset when she has her nightmares or just gets weird.
When Sara meets with “publishing gods” James Booker (Cortez Johnson) and Carl Richards (Max Macke), she finds them more interested in the prurient – especially in pictures of Saartjie – than in her own curiosity about the reason for our fascination with Saartjie’s physique.
At least they’re honest about it: “We cater to an erudite public,” says Carl. “Still, our cultivated audience is looking for entertainment as well as intellectual stimulation.”
But Sara still wants that book deal and can’t resist chiming in with this comment: “She was bigger than J. Lo.”
The play changes time frames, characters, even geography often, but Sonnenberg has set up the switches expertly and they’re not difficult to follow.
Diamond raises many questions. Can Sara discuss Saartjie’s subjugation without adding to the exploitation? How pure are her own motives? Does presenting racist images just perpetuate them?
The other characters have conflicts as well. Should we be angry or grateful that Fred Harlow’s frumpy Dunlop talked Saartjie into going to England, where she became a side show? And was scientist Georges Cuvier – who made major contributions in both paleontology and anatomy – doing science or pandering to his own proclivities when, after her death, he performs some appalling experiments?
No wonder Sara has nightmares. But just as you’re being horrified, Diamond tosses in a dance sequence (with wonderful choreography by Michael Mizerany) to lighten the mood, or at least to move us into fantasy.
Cashae Monya never disappoints, and this role is no exception. Her Sara – a gloriously confused mixture of ambition, guilt and excitement – is a wonder to watch.
Joy Yvonne Jones is excellent as Saartjie – verbal, intelligent, funny and spunky – and miles more dignified than Harlow’s believably awful Dunlop and the others who would use her.
Lang is particularly adept here, charming in his role as Sara’s husband and disturbing as the self-assured Cuvier (for whom he has to assume a flawless French accent).
Nancy Ross, mostly amusing as Cuvier’s harried assistant Millicent, becomes increasingly (and convincingly) horrified as Cuvier’s experiments continue.
Cortez Johnson is hard to resist as smooth-talking black publisher Booker.
Max Macke is fine as white publisher Carl Richards and museum director William Bullock.
Dancers Lesa M. Green, Jocelyn Johnston and Ashley Stewart make valuable contributions as well.
There are no answers here, just food for thought. And that’s what good plays do best. Leave it to the ladies of Moxie to make us think and laugh in the same night.
“Voyeurs de Venus” plays through September 9, 2018, at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard in the Rolando district.
Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm
Tickets: (858) 598-7620 or www.moxietheatre.com