‘Venus’ history far from behind the times

Kim Kardashian has been compared to the main character in the play “Venus” who was an African-American slave exploited for her body.

The play by Suzan-Lori Parks follows the true-life story of Saartjie Baartman who

The play, "Venus'," character Saartjie Baartman was a historical figure known to have been exploited for her odd-shaped body. Photo courtesy of Bozark.

was proclaimed the Venus Hottentot by the public. The 19th century Hottentot woman was shipped from Africa to England and displayed as a freak.

Theater professor Kathryn Bentley directs SIUE’s production of the play.

Olivia Neal, 2011 theater graduate, said she finds it interesting to play Baartman who had a very unique build and large behind, and was put in a freak show.

“It covered how she was treated and challenges the idea whether she willingly or was pulled from her home or was totally against it,” Neal said.  “She did not have the best of life prior to going, so that was the opportunity–to go into the entertainment field to allow her to gain some type of independence.”

Neal added knowing that the playwright did a lot of research, and for her, being able to tell a story that a lot of people don’t get to know about is fulfilling.

She also referenced Kardashian who posed in pictures and who was compared to Baartman.

“Kim Kardashian a couple months ago was [photographed] showing off her butt and everything and so she has been compared to Saartjie Baartman,” Neal said.  “Some people may have not have really heard about [her] but this play is very relevant in that it brings around the history of it and allows us to tell that story.”

Neal said she has to think about what is it like to live in a time where not only was her character a black woman and a slave but someone who moved into a whole another area where her body was unique and odd-shaped.

“She [Baartman] really just was fighting for a life to support herself and wanting something better,” Neal said. “It goes to show what people do, how far you would go. She didn’t really have an option in that.”

“Venus,” according to Neal, is fascinating because it will be performed around Valentine’s Day.

“There’s a lot of play on love, what is self-love and relationships,” Neal said. “It’s such a rich play with so much info.”

One of the roles junior theater major Ben Nichols plays is the baron doctor.

According to Nichols, he is a strong character, though frail in stature: in his 50s.

He said his character, as well as Venus, the showman and the showman’s brother are more natural and human compared to some of the snooty, hunched over characters who are freaks, court people and anatomists.

“It helps the audience to feel more for the natural characters so the audience can distance themselves from these characters,” Nichols said.

Senior Ashley Beal said she feels the message of “Venus” is very impactful being involved in the theater department and performing in it.

“I feel as an African-American woman we go through a lot of these same things, and there are issues that people don’t talk about and that people don’t really understand,” Beal said. “Because every day, women are put on display whether it has to do with body image, mixed skin, what type of hair you have. So I feel like it sends that message about what I go through internally as an African-American woman.”

Josh Funneman plays four roles: a freak, a judge, a spectator and an anatomist.

“It’s a dark-toned play but with humorous moments,” Funneman said.

“Venus” will be performed at the Metcalf Theater February 20-21 at 7:30 p.m.; February 22 at 2:00 p.m.; February 25-28 at 7:30 p.m., and March 1 at 2:00 p.m.

A Talkback post-show discussion of the play will be held on Sunday, February 22 with Dr. Sandra Weissinger, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice Studies.

Ticket prices are adults $12, seniors and non-SIUE students $10 and SIUE students receive free admission with a valid I.D. To purchase tickets visit the SIUE Department of Theater and Dance box office located inside Katherine Dunham Hall on the SIUE campus, or charge by phone by calling the Dunham Hall fine arts box office at 618-650-2774.  Visit the website at www.siue.edu/artsandsciences/theater.

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