MIAMI – Venus is a stage play inspired by the true life story of Sara “Saartjie” Baartman. This young South African woman became famously known as “The Venus Hottentot.” Labeled a “freak show attraction,” she was paraded throughout Britain and Paris like a circus animal and expected to show Europeans her genitals and large buttocks, which were considered highly unusual bodily features.
From 1810 to 1815, she became an object of exploitation. Venus opens on January 11 and runs for four weekends thru February 5 in the Wendell A. Narcisse Performing Arts Theater at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center (AHCAC), 6161 NW 22 Avenue in Miami.
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks – the first ever black female playwright to receive a Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as two Obie Awards for Venus – the play intertwines dramatic forms to examine ethics, stereotypes and exploitation.
Venus is a Florida premier for Rachel Finley, the production’s director and proud South Florida native, earned her BFA at the world renowned Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Florida Atlantic University.
Finley first pitched her vision for the production 15 years ago because the story resonated so much with her.
“I was in awe of how this story from 200 years ago draws so many parallels to the ways in which women are fetishized and exploited today,” Finley said.
The play also features a talented cast including: Athena Lightburn (Venus), Keith C. Wade (Negro Resurrectionist), Vaughn Rian St. James (Mother-Showman), Daniel Gil (Baron Docteur), Toni Tenaj Mason, Sandi Stock, Jason Pierre and Phillip Andrew Santiago. Venus offers an avant garde approach to the account of Sara’s life abroad in 19th Century London when she was lured away from her home in South Africa with the promise of riches.
In the play, after being sold to the owner of a sideshow known as the Mother-Showman, Baartman is given the stage name “The Hottentot Venus.” Her “act” leads to a prospering business, with Europeans all over traveling to see the display of her genitalia and buttocks.
The Baron Docteur takes interest in Baartman, and buys her from the Mother-Showman. He takes Baartman with him to Paris where she lives as his mistress while the Baron Docteur and his fellow anatomists study her. After her untimely death in a Paris jail cell, the study of her body continues and a plaster cast of her body along with her skeleton is displayed at the Musée de l’Homme.
The true life of Baartman ended on December 29, 1815, at the age of 26. Starting in the 1940s, there were numerous calls for Sara’s remains to be returned to her motherland, South Africa.
Over the years, noted South African poets, novelists and historians kept the movement alive to return Sara’s remains and eventually brought it to the world stage. Her importance to South Africans grew so much that it warranted a request in 1994 from the newly elected President, Nelson Mandela himself, for the repatriation of Baartman’s remains and plaster cast.
Baartman became iconic in South Africa. In 1999, The Saartjie Baartman’s Centre for Children and Women, a domestic violence survivor shelter, was opened in Cape Town. Even South Africa’s first offshore environmental protection vessel was named after Baartman.
The process took eight years, but the French government eventually agreed to Mandela’s request and Baartman’s remains were brought home on May 6, 2002. On August 9 of that same year, the remains were buried on Vergaderingskop, a hill in the town of Hankey, in Eastern Cape Province, 192 years after Baartman initially left for Europe.
Venus includes semi-nude scenes and is a show for mature audiences. Pre-sold or advance tickets can be purchased at the Center for $25, using cash or check only. Tickets purchased at the door are $30 and $20 for students and seniors.
For group rates or more information about Venus, call 305-638-6771 or visit the AHCAC at 6161 NW 22 Avenue in Miami. Business hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information about the AHCAC, visit www.ahcacmiami.org. Follow to get updates about the play on social media using #Venus, #AHCAC and @ahcacmiami.