The odd, sad story of a South African woman who in the early 19th Century was subjected to side show exploitation because of her huge derriere has been told before. But this play by Suzan-Lori Parks presented by the Signature Theatre takes the approach of a legend told with the aid of a narrator and a chorus appearing in different guises, from members of a freak show to doctors marveling at the woman who came to be known as the Venus Hottentot. Wrapped within is the saga of Saartjie Baartman, who gained fame as a center of attraction in England and France, but ended in an early death.
Director Lear Debessonet alternates between emphasizing the spectacle and intimacy contained in Parks’s play. At the core is Zainab Jah in the title role, giving a superb, ultimately affecting performance. The play begins with her appearing center stage and putting on a body suit that turns her into the shape that made her unusual.
Actually, the constructed derriere isn’t all that shocking today. We often see butts like that on a bus. But it reportedly drove men gaga when Baartman, lured to London with promise of riches, was placed in a freak show, along with such oddities as a supposedly two-headed woman, a bearded lady etc. The colorfully costumed freak chorus chants about not being able to leave.
Baartman’s life takes a turn when she is bought by the Baron Docteur, played with authority and sometimes tenderness by John Ellison Conlee, who despite his genuine feelings for Baartman, will ultimately betray her. She falls in love with him, although he is married, and in a setting reflecting his wealth, she shows her neediness by repeatedly asking if he loves her. Lurking in his mind is her future death when her body can be dissected and studied.
That more intimate portion of the play provides the strongest emotional connection for an audience, as opposed to the spectacle and overview that captures attention (excellent scenic design by Matt Saunders) but detracts from the real drama involving a life at stake. Baartman is afflicted with a venereal disease apparently contracted from her benefactor and her health takes a downward spiral until her death.
All of the cast members are good, but Jah is very special as she builds her character from humble beginnings, through the freak show period to being a mistress of the Baron Docteur. Ultimately we do feel for this victim of exploitation, and that is the major accomplishment of the play. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed May 20, 2017.