History is written, and perceived through the lenses of those that have the privilege to tell the story. VOYEURS DE VENUS, now playing at MOXIE Theatre through September 9th is a stunning and provocative show that makes the audience reflect on when exploitation has masqueraded as exploration, science and prejudice has gone hand in hand, and just how much of history is fact and how much is shaped by those in power.
The play intertwines the story of Saartjie Baartman (Joy Yvonne Jones), the 19th-century “Hottentot”, a derogatory term for the Khoekhoe people of South Africa, with Sara (Cashae Monya) an African American present day academia as a pop culture anthropologist.
It follows the historical journey of Saarrtjie, who was taken out of Africa in 1810 by Alexander Dunlop (Fred Harlow) and taken to England to display as an “oddity” under the guise of racial science. She spoke four languages; English, Dutch, some French, and her native Khoekhoe language, but no one cared about her intelligence. She was there because colonial science and society regarded her body as an example of unusual, and hyper sexual, mostly due to her exaggeratedly proportioned posterior.
While technically a free woman, she was dependent on the men who made money off of her. Eventually she ended up in the care of Georges Cuvier (Justin Lang) a scientist and professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History in Paris who viewed her as a missing link between animals and humans.
In present day, when Sara is offered a lucrative book deal to tell Saartjie’s story her focus turns into a half crazed preoccupation as she worries that her telling this story is further exploiting Saartjie, and starts to see, talk to, and dream about Saartjie and her life .
Sara is married to James Bradsford (Justin Lang) a tall blond who is an academic himself, and an incredibly patient husband as Sara struggles with her process and decisions in writing this book. James Booker (Cortez Johnson) a handsome, educated African American publisher who helped her get the book deal only adds to her confusion.
The publishers seem especially curious why there are not pictures of Saartjie in this book, as their requests for them get repeatedly turned down by an increasingly frustrated Sara who views that as further exploitation.
As Carl, (Max Macke) another publisher tells her “We cater to an erudite public. Still, our cultivated audience is looking for entertainment as well as intellectual stimulation.” At least they’re honest about their motivations.
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, this play mixes fantasy, dance sequences, and subplots with the main character arcs. Time, location, and geography all transition easily under her care, while the characters tackle weighty matters but still are full of sass, sly winks, and awareness . Her directing is always a superb deep dive into complex questions.
As Sara, the academic Monya is strong, articulate, and her descent into confusion of ambition, enthusiasm, and guilt is riveting. The playwright’s voice is the most sharp and polished when it is articulated by Monya.
Jones as Saartjie is luminescent in her authenticity and vulnerability. Her Saartjie shines with intelligence and resiliency making her treatment at the hands of those around her all the more terrible for it.
Cortez Johnson as the publisher Booker is confident and convincing as he understands how to best achieve his goals in this world. After all he didn’t get where he was by fighting all the battles, he sits out the small ones so he can win the big ones.
Lang is a strong support as both Sara’s almost saintly husband, and the more disturbing scientist Cuvier. Nancy Ross is also a standout as Millicent, Cuvier’s assistant in his experimentations.
This play asks a lot of big questions on how we know and understand the history that has come before us. Especially in regards to those that were not part of the ruling white, European society that got to make all the rules and write the history and science besides. Just because this was the norm doesn’t mean that is or should continue to be so. This story touches upon so many issues that are still concerns today; racism, sexism, classism, science, art, history, sex, exploitation, and more.
Apparently times may change, but as one character says “The arbiters of power remain the same.”
With so much to explore, and the mix of tones between the reality and fantastical elements, the show does feel long and a few editorial cuts wouldn’t hurt or be missed.
The play doesn’t seek to presume to answer the issues that it raises; it just brings them back up to the surface and reopens them for discussion. It is a provocative piece that asks the audience to contemplate many issues and is an excellent example of the way art can challenge and engage people to think on things long after they have left the theatre.
VOYEURS DE VENUS is playing at MOXIE through September 9th. This show does contain partial nudity and has content of a mature nature.
For ticket and show information go to www.moxietheatre.com