Playwright Suzan Lori-Parks consistently operates close to the most sensitive nerves of our contemporary American culture. With In the Blood, her riveting revision of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Parks took on the complex relations among single mothers, their children, and the social-services workers who both help and exploit them. In Topdog/Underdog, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002, she examined the shifting expectations faced by African-American men to great effect. Venus, which predates both of those plays, elaborates on the experiences of a historical figure, Sarah Baartman, a member of the Khoikhoi people of South Africa, a tribe previously known as the Hottentots, and renowned especially in the early 19th century for their propensity to steatopygia, which is the scientific term for having an unusually large bottom. In 1810, Baartman was brought to London, where she was exhibited in a freak show. From there she moved to Paris, where she became first the lover and then the experimental subject, postmortem, of a French scientist. It’s as grotesque an instance as I know of the racist tendencies of 19th-century science to objectify the other.
In Tom Whitaker’s splendidly creative production at UCSB, Tonea Lolin turned in an excellent and affecting performance in the title role. Turned out in a brilliantly conceived prosthetic suit by costume designer Ann Bruice, Lolin was poked, prodded, handled, and ogled by a chorus of the curious, and dominated and degraded by her two main antagonists, Joré Aaron as the Mother-Showman and Zachary Macias as the Baron Docteur. While the script is Parks at her most postmodern and features loads of meta-theatrical elements, such as footnotes and even a performance during the intermission, the UCSB production succeeded in elevating the humanity of the subject above any particular message in the method. The trombone, bass, and drums trio that played music composed by Jon Nathan lent a powerful sense of urgency to what was already a brutal story of entrapment on multiple levels. Bravo to the UCSB Department of Theater and Dance for bringing us this revelatory work.