Voyeurs de Venus

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 3, 2008

Marvelyn McFarlane as Saartjie Baartman  Kortney Adams as Sara Washington
Marvelyn McFarlane as Saartjie Baartman Kortney Adams as Sara Washington  (Source:www.companyone.org)

Lydia Diamond's play Voyeurs de Venus provokes emotions of the strongest sort: disgust, horror, heartbreak --those could be the watchwords of this production, the Boston premiere, presented by Company One.

Voyeurs is an ambitious work about an ambitious young woman, Sara Washington (Kortney Adams), an African American cultural anthropologist who is offered a book deal to research and write the story of a 19th century African woman who traveled to Europe and became a celebrity--in the cruelest sense of the word.

The program notes tell us that Saartjie Baartman boarded a ship and set out for London around 1810. This is a matter of historic fact; also factual is Baartman having fetched up in Paris, where she became an object of study for Georges Cuvier, an anatomist who created the system for classifying organisms according to the now-familiar schema that includes phyla, genus, and species.

In Diamond's play, Sara learns so much about Baartman's (Marvelyn McFarlane) life that she's soon conversing with Baartman, channeling her life story into a manuscript that everyone from Sara's white husband, James (Nathaniel Hall Taylor) to Booker, the black editor with whom she falls into an affair (Quentin James) regards as unbelievable because the Baartman of Sara's imagination is "too articulate"--a charge that, as Sara remarks irritably, certain people make about her, too.

Not that Sara has racial "issues," mind you. At least, she says she doesn't. Except that she finds it so much easier to confide in Bookman, to talk to him about her doubts, even though he brushes aside her concern for Baartman's privacy and dignity, saying that he doesn't think it's even possible to "exploit" people once they are dead.

Not that Baartman wasn't exploited plenty during her life, and not always in the name of science. Diamond's play has it that Baartman was not just subjected to detailed drawings by of her genitalia by Cuvier (played here by Michael Steven Costello); she was, essentially, sexually assaulted. Diamond rubs out noses in it: Cuvier is shown having his maid Millicent (Becca A. Lewis) read descriptions of African womens' genitalia aloud from an anatomy text while he masturbates into a pillow.

It's exactly that sort of objectification that Sara seeks to resist, but degree by degree the requirements of her book call for her to dumb down the character of Baartmen, to expose her private life and the liberties that were taken with her; as Sara observes in a wrenching moment, "I don't empower her. I let it happen again in front of witnesses."

Sara's own private life is rife with the psychic fallout of her writing process. Her husband begins to withdraw from her; her dreams are full of the characters from her own life as well as from the book she's writing, doing court dances or waltzes or strip-teases or even boogeying to disco music. At some point, it's unclear even to Sara whether she's writing, re-writing, or simply inventing Baartman's life wholesale; and if this is the result of her attempt at biography, what will her autobiography be like?

Diamond takes on a quiver full of issues, but she identifies and hones each one before sending it straight and true to the target. Summer L. Williams directs the material with sympathy and with energy: this is a fearless production, even where its execution may not work as well as planned.

Example: part of the stage revolves like a lazy Susan, carrying characters and props on and off, and creating an interesting means of switching from one period to another as Sara writes Baartman's history. The metaphor is clever: if time is a wheel, then why not make the staging into a dynamic reflection of time's own nature? But the rumbling and grinding of the moving stage proves aggravating, interrupting the play's spell and disrupting the mood that director and actors create.

That's not enough to ruin the play. This is such strong material that it holds up with scorching vitality, refusing to soothe Sara's doubts--or ours, either.

Voyeurs de Venus plays through November 22 at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. Performance schedule: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

Tickets cost $30-$35 Thursdays and Sundays; $33-$38 Fridays and Saturdays; students pay $15 for all shows (valid ID required) and seniors pay $30. All tickets cost $18 on "Wild Wednesdays."

Tickets available online at www.BostonTheatreScene.com, at the Box Office at the BCA or at Boston University Theatre Box Office at 264 Huntington Avenue, or via phone at 617-933-8600.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.