Dressed in a skeletal form shaped with exaggerated tits and ass—essentially a cartoonish corset and bustle—L’Oreal Jackson portrays Saarjtie Baartman, aka the “Hottentot Venus,” who, in 1810, was lured away from her life as a servant in southern Africa and carted off to London, where her ample attributes made her a prime candidate for the freak-show circuit. Later, she was sold to a French anatomist who studied her corporeal form when not plying her with liquor and sweets in exchange for sexual pleasures. Not much is known about Baartman’s own thoughts concerning these matters, and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks doesn’t offer much by way of suggestion. The result is a show that is more about the supporting players—those who swindle and abuse Baartman—than the Venus herself. The production, staged by The Mill (formerly Experimental Theatre Chicago) and directed by Jaclyn Biskup, has the unfortunate timing of coming just six months after Lydia Diamond’s deft and witty exploration of the same historical material in “Voyeurs de Venus,” which debuted at Chicago Dramatists last March. Though they share a subject matter, the plays couldn’t be more different. Diamond’s centered on a paradox—how does one examine the exploited without becoming an exploiter herself?—whereas Parks uses Baartman as a springboard for observations about, among other things, sexuality, race and appearance. That’s a lot of chaotic dramaturgy to digest in one sitting, and while the cast here is capable and sometimes engrossing—Darci Nalepa’s Mother-Showman is the quintessential slithery prick, worthy of Dickens—Parks’ presentational format tends to distance you from Baartman, who may be the title character but is all but a cipher in the play. (Nina Metz)
This production is now closed.