KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 4, 2000
Scene Excerpt: Mother Showman
The Venus Hottentot. A real South African woman, living at the turn of the 19th century, lured away from her homeland with the promise of fame and fortune, massively exploited because of her prominent posterior.
Scene Excerpt: Negro Resurrectionist
First, she was displayed as a circus freak, gawked at by the riffraff of London. Then she was taken to Paris, where she lived as a pampered slave, a diva on display for the medical community, a kind of concubine who, for her love and pains, was given the clap by the married doctor who exploited her both during her lifetime and after her death, with detailed and rather insensitive autopsy reports.
Scene Excerpt: Baron Docteur
Once again, acclaimed African American avant-garde playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has taken history and turned it on its ear. Her presentational, Brechtian retelling of this poignant and painful story is an exotic, sometimes shocking, poetic, non-linear exposé of racial, sexual and scientific exploitation. The plays Parks writes are not easy to read or see, but they are deeply provocative and groundbreaking in their style, scored like symphonic compositions, written like jazz improvisations.
The Fritz worked wonders with “The America Play” three years ago, when they introduced Suzan-Lori parks to San Diego audiences. Now, with its new production of “Venus,” director Chris Wylie has also shown that he can run with the playwright’s language, humor and playful style. As an actor turned director, Wylie invokes all manner of theatrical technique, from pantomime to declamation, slo-mo and song to a play-within-a-play, with especially imaginative use of masks. Parks plays fast and loose with time and storyline, and Wylie is true to her tempos and musicality.
The 12-actor ensemble plays 29 roles, some more effectively than others, but in a variety of dramatic approaches that underscore the circus atmosphere, which is further enhanced by garish music, flashing lights and a bright red ring center stage.
Keith Wright is riveting as the Negro Resurrectionist, the ringmaster/host/ narrator of the piece. Betty Matthews, playing five characters, is best as the Mother Showman, the witchy sideshow madam who uses and abuses the hapless Venus. At the heart of the story and the stage, Suzanne Forbes is incandescent, bringing strength, dignity and a profound beauty to the title role.
Much of the cast seems a bit slapdash and imprecise in mastering the stylized moves of Keith Wright’s choreography. Perhaps the timing will tighten up as the run continues; all the makings are there for an exciting theatrical experience, if the audience can relax and go with it, and see the chillingly contemporary social commentary lurking behind the laughter.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.