Staff Writer/Fact Checker/Editor
I like it when an art form reminds me why it is so important to take risks in life, no matter how frightened we are by the mere thought of doing so. Otherwise, we would never be able to break the silence on matters that are severely neglected. In the case of Obsidian Theatre’s production of Venus’ Daughter, that fact is especially applicable to anthropological debates surrounding human zoos and cultural violence. It is a true accomplishment for a theatre company to adapt an issue that would normally be tucked away in history books for the stage.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story about Saartjie “Sara” Baartman, she was a South African woman sold to exhibitions in London and Paris as a display due to her unusual bodily proportions, most notably her sizable buttocks. She was subjected to anatomical studies, leading researchers in the 19th century to conclude that her features were a sign of her primitive sexuality. When she died, her skeleton and genitals were removed from the rest of her body and preserved in a jar for two centuries in the Museum of Man before she was officially buried.
This tragic account is the stimulus for our play in question, which explores people’s everlasting fascination with the derrière through paralleled scenarios depicting Jamaican-Canadian Denise’s (Meghan Swaby) life and Sara’s (Akosua Amo-Adem) experiences as perceived by Denise.
Swaby is also the playwright, and I describe her script as both accessible and abstract at the same time. It is easy to follow, but also just flexible enough to allow for powerful and creative imagery, as well as various interpretations that compel audiences to gravitate towards these characters and ideas. Very rarely does a modern script manage to achieve such status, and I predict that Swaby’s work here will one day become a fitting addition to contemporary literature.
I will be honest, Amo-Adem’s opening scene as the Tortoise perplexed me, not because of the lines spoken, but rather because of how she spoke the lines. Much of the script is reminiscent of slam poetry, and I understand that these lines do need to be enunciated and acted out differently as a result, but the performance was delivered in something of a possessed manner, especially during the moments when she cackled. I felt that, had she maintained a more grim and mysterious persona throughout her monologue, it would’ve been more impactful given the subject matter.
The play does pick up shortly afterwards, and the combination of Denise’s soliloquies, her encounters with Sara as well as significant individuals in her life, and the traditional African-inspired interpretive dance (choreographed by Esie Mensah and accompanied by Lyon Smith’s congruous bongo drum effects) all succeed in visually addressing the inner psychological and verbal abuse associated with body image and societal expectations. Even if we are socially evolving, this play shows us that not much has changed in our understanding of sex and the body, though the language to express it has.
Denise’s re-enactment of the song “Mailman, Mailman Do Your Duty” was incredibly heartbreaking to watch. It was redolent of the coercion Sara faced in performing for exhibition visitors. Another indelible moment was when she stripped naked and professed that she feels both big and small. This is one of the many instances in the script that I, and I'm sure others as well, are able to relate to due to the multiple meanings that can come from it. We may feel our issues are insignificant when compared to the world, that we are vulnerable, or perhaps subordinate to the norm because of our differences and as a result, must conform to standards based on those differences.
There are some unique aesthetics in set design, compliments of Joe Pagnan, one in particular being the breakable trap door revealing a sand pit, where Sara buries her daughter. Kaitlin Hickey’s light projections are phenomenal, perfectly intensifying characters’ expressions and movements. The audio (Lyon Smith), while extremely effective, was a little loud during the scene where Denise listens to a voice message from her mum. The Theatre Centre’s black box is an enclosed and resonant space, so this may be something to keep in mind for future performances. Though with that said, I like the idea of the show being staged in the round, making it really feel like an exhibition.
Unfortunately, many of Kaleb Alexander’s roles greatly distort the tone of the play. While some of them are necessary in order to solidify certain historical contexts, others could easily be cut from the script. They are underdeveloped, and serve mostly as comic relief. While he is talented, entertaining, and has a lot of potential, I feel that the play could have focused more on fleshing out Swaby’s and Amo-Adem’s characters.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend this show, as it highlights the importance of observing the evolution of societal views on body image, and the consequences of these views.
Directed by Philip Akin, Venus’ Daughter runs until Feb. 28 at The Theatre Centre. For more information, visit: http://www.obsidiantheatre.com/season/venus-daughter/