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The Hottentot Venus was real, but at the same time, she wasn't. That was the persona created for Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman, a black South African woman who was displayed in British freak shows during the early nineteenth century. She was showcased because of her large buttocks, which white Europeans deemed shocking and exotic, and she eventually achieved a cruel kind of fame. By the time she died, she lived in France, where she was even being studied by doctors, though their curiosity was just as vulgar as the general public's.
In 1996, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks tackled Baartman's legacy (and the mad culture that created it) in her play Venus, which is now being revived by Signature Theatre. At the start of the current production, we see the actress Zainab Jah step onstage and put on a padded bodysuit with exaggerated breasts and backside. She doesn't remove it for the rest of the show, reminding us that the Venus is always a performance.
I recently spoke to Jah about how she inhabits both characters -- the carnival attraction and the woman beneath.
Mark Blankenship: I was so struck by the first moment of the play, when you step onstage as yourself and then slip on that bodysuit to become the character. What happens to you as a performer in that moment?
Zainab Jah: Well, what happens to me is pretty much what I feel happened with Sarah, in that she put on the persona of the Hottentot Venus. Sarah no longer existed, at least in her performance. A shift like that happens for me in my mind, like a psychic shift, which happened even back when we were doing fittings for the suit. The first time I put it on I remember being in the room and looking in the mirror, and it's almost like I stepped outside of myself because it looks so completely different to who I am, to how I'm built physically.
MB: It's so interesting to hear you say that instead of the "skin" of the real woman, you're putting on the skin of the persona that never quite existed.
ZB: Which is how she's remembered, more for the persona than for who she was. As she became more famous, they didn't want her to be Sarah Baartman at all. They wanted her to be Venus Hottentot. She learned French; she learned Dutch; she learned all of this stuff. But they didn't want that. They still wanted her to be the Venus Hottentot who is the primitive beast, not quite a human being, just an exotic thing.
MB: Does Sarah ever come through for you, or do you feel like you're just playing the Venus Hottentot throughout the show?
ZJ: Oh, definitely Sarah comes through. Especially in her relationships with the other people, how she's treated. How she's treated by the people close to her. Then Sarah's vulnerability, Sarah's heart really makes itself known.
MB: The idea of her heart makes me think about authenticity – of who's seen as an authentic person. I love how the script turns a lot of the white people into these big caricatures, like the judges who act like buffoons while they decide if Sarah is being mistreated in the freak show.
But I noticed that when they were acting like clowns, you were incredibly still. Was that intentional?
ZJ: Not really. I never really gave it much thought, just because I feel like for me, Sarah is listening to the proceedings, and she knows. She realizes the farce of it all, and these people try to make themselves feel good about something that they're not quite sure they understand how to handle. There's a lot of, for lack of a better word, bloviating happening. She can see that they don't quite know what to do with her, and for me it's not something I really thought about in particular in terms of the stillness, but just listening. What's going to happen now? What's going to happen to my future? I've been bought and sold and pushed and betrayed so many times.
MB: And naturally you would want to listen closely to these people who have decided they have dominion over you. They've decided they understand your body better than you. All of that.
ZJ: I think she was very aware of the fact that this is really ridiculous, what's going on here. Like when she's asked, "Were you being indecent?" She's like, "No, I'm just me. I'm just standing here being me, and you're all having this extreme reaction to me just because of the way I'm physically built." This is nineteenth-century England, and the body hang-ups that people had in England were completely opposite to anything she felt about herself, you know what I mean? She doesn't feel there's anything wrong with her naked body, but they all feel like, "Oh my god, it's sinful. It's shameful." She's like, "No, I'm just being me. You're the ones going crazy about it."
MB: I love that about this play. That she doesn't say, "You see me this way, so you must be right." I can see how having a sense of British history would be meaningful to your performance, too.
ZJ: It's really interesting. My own personal background also helps. I'm from West Africa. I was born and raised in London, but my family is from West Africa and I spent my childhood there. It reminds me as a child when I moved to England and just how people reacted to me being African and these ideas that they had of what an African is, which had nothing to do with how I saw myself. I feel that's how Sarah most definitely must have felt.
Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity
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Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Zainab Jah