Lydia Diamond Tells a Provocative Story

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 3, 2008

Lydia R. Diamond candidly admits she once had the wrong idea about audiences. The playwright, whose theatrical version of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" has earned her countless admirers, says that way back she "used to think I understood everything about everything." A more mature Diamond believes, "I don't know what people see."

She says her goal now is, "never to make people feel a certain way but to create an experience that is moving and entertaining."

"Voyeurs de Venus" surely will also set people to thinking. Company One presents the Boston Premiere of Diamond's "Voyeurs de Venus" opening Fri., Oct. 31 at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End. For more info about the show which runs through Nov. 22, you can go on-line to or phone 617-933-8600.

The provocative story interfaces two women of African descent, a contemporary scholar of pop culture and a captive South African who was a side show attraction in 19th century England and France. Sara is writing a book about Saartjie Baartman, better known as the Hottentot Venus whose prominent buttocks made her a sexual oddity in the eyes of white voyeurs. While Sara attempts to balance her own life which is complicated by her having a white husband and a black lover (who is also her publisher), and as she delves into the tragedy she's writing about, her own racial identity becomes an issue of paramount importance to her.

The exploitation of the South African woman known as the Hottentot Venus around which Diamond's play "Voyeurs d Venus" revolves has ignited the imagination of many artists of color. The Koi-San woman Saartjie Baartman was displayed, among other reasons, to point out how an African woman is the polar opposite of the European ideal of womanhood. She was made to stand on a stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and made to walk, pose, and turn on demand to show her buttocks and vulva. Baartman died in 1816, but even then the exploitation continued.

A French anatomist dissected her body, and her brain, skeleton, and genitals were placed on public display in a museum in Paris where they remained until 1974. Finally, through the demands of Nelson Mandela, Baartman's remains were repatriated to South Africa in 2002. Among the artists who have seen in the story of the Hottentot Venus the Western sexualization and pathologizing of the African female body are Suzan Lori Parks with her play "Venus" and photographer Renee Cox whose gelatin silver print "Hot-en-Tot" is currently on display as part of the major exhibit installed through Dec. 14 at Wellesley College's Davis Museum, "Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body"

"Why do we tell such stories?" repeats Diamond in a recent conversation. Her response: "They're healing unless you wallow in it or exploit the topic (as does Sara). Not debilitating but empowering. By giving the issue a voice and a context, so it will be healing."

Directed by Summer L. Williams (who directed last season's "The Bluest Eye"), the drama stars IRNE Best Actress winner Kortney Adams as Sara and Marvelyn McFarlane featured in Company One's production of "The Bluest Eye" as Saartjie Baartman. Doug Cochrane, Michael Steven Costello, Quentin James, Becca A. Lewis, Bob Schwalbach, and Nathaniel Taylor complete the cast.

Diamond feels comfortable with Williams at the helm of a story that is "structurally complicated yet not self consciously structurally crafted but where the characters dictated the play."

"I didn't attend many of the rehearsals for 'The Bluest Eye,' but when I did she was so lovely at making me feel welcome. She has an aesthetic that matches mine. She's smart. She asks challenging questions. She knows how to read a play and then realize it on stage. And the icing on the cake is that she's wonderful with people and has the respect of her actors. She knows how to hold a room with gentle and firm guidance. When I would walk into a rehearsal, it felt healthy and happy."

Diamond says that Company One had asked to do "Voyeurs de Venus" first but "I wanted to give myself the time to learn the company before I would release it to them. They were gracious and did a winning production with another play ("The Bluest Eye) which Summer also directed. I really have come to trust them."

While Diamond has connections with theaters in other cities, her Boston affiliations are significant. "Voyeurs de Venus," for example, premiered in Chicago where the play won the prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work (Company One is the second theater to stage it). Other theaters that have produced her work include Long Wharf and Hartford Rep, Providence Black Rep, Atlanta's Horizon Theatre, Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre, Detroit's Plowshares Theatre, and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Locally, she teaches advanced playwriting and other courses at Boston University and is a Huntington Theatre Playwriting Fellow. (previously she was a non resident fellow at Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, '05-'06 and during that period led a 9-month theatre mentorship workshop program at ACT Roxbury located in the Dudley Square neighborhood of Roxbury).

She described the Huntington playwriting program as being designed by Elana Brownstein to accommodate four playwrights at a time who have a formal relationship with the Huntington for a two year period. Diamond's group also includes Rebekah Maggor, John Shea, and Kate Snodgrass. Diamond has enjoyed her association with the group which meets to hear readings of one another's work. "I feel fortunate to belong and very supported," she said.

Click here to read EDGE's review.