Suzan-Lori Parks emerged in the 1990s as a talented new playwright who experimented with traditional forms to create a singular body of work. “Top Dog/Underdog” earned her the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama a year after she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant.
The Texas native’s reach has grown to fiction, screenplays and music, but her plays remain her best showcase. The newly renamed University of Pittsburgh Stages’ creative production of “Venus,” Ms. Parks’ 1996 work, is a case in point.
“Venus” is not Ms. Parks’ finest work, although the play’s challenging structure touches all the bases of the dramatic art. Her message is abundantly clear from the opening scene — Europe’s exploitation and dehumanizing of Africans through the life of the “Hottentot Venus” — but Ms. Parks pounds that theme without letup to the closing scene.
Examples of Western inhumanity are legion, but the case of Saartjie Baartman actually put that attitude on public display in a freak show in London in the early 19th century. Baartman was a Khoikhoi born in what is modern-day South Africa whose distinctively large buttocks made her a curiosity for Europeans.
Her appearances in London starting in 1810 as the Hottentot Venus turned her into a popular attraction for the promoters who later sold her to a Frenchman. She was exhibited and studied by scientists and artists. After she died, her skeleton and preserved body parts were displayed in a Paris museum.
The play is built around the Venus role, a complicated one that mixes naivete, shrewdness, intelligence and resignation with a striking physical appearance. Bria Walker, teaching artist in residence at Pitt, captures all of these elements in a compelling performance.
Joining her in an equally powerful performance is another teaching artist, Terry Hardcastle who plays the smitten French scientist Cuvier whom the playwright portrays as the Venus’ lover and later, performs the autopsy that focuses on her reproductive organs.
Jenna Simmons leads the fine supporting cast of students with the thankless task of portraying a trio of loathsome villains, which she does with repellent nastiness. Assistant Pitt professor Cynthia Croot directed this production with a sure and sympathetic hand including the play within the play with masked actors that provided an alternate take on the main story.
Ms. Croot is familiar with Ms. Parks’ play, having directed it in South Africa when Baartman’s remains were brought back to her homeland. She was assisted by Pitt’s production crew paced by set designer Gianni Downs and costume designer Mindy Eshelman.
“Venus” is perhaps the only presentation with a quasi-intermission. Cuvier delivers a dull lecture while suggesting that, if they wanted, audience members could take a break. At nearly 21⁄2 hours, the play needs both an intermission and a substantial pruning to draw its disparate parts together.
Still, with some echoes of such avant-garde plays as “Marat/Sade,” Ms. Parks’ “Venus” demonstrates theater’s capacity to stretch our imaginations and hearts at the same time.
Retired Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover reviews theater for the newspaper.