Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks (1996)

I only read this, I didn’t see it. That’s an image from a Public Theater/Yale Rep production directed by Richard Foreman.

I really loved Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, but this one was a big disappointment for me. It was disappointing in an interesting way, though, namely, it’s a vivid instance of the imitative fallacy: Parks makes a spectacle of Saartjie Baartman as she attempts to condemn those who made a spectacle of Saartjie Baartman. I rush to make clear that I well understand that Parks has created her spectacle out of sympathy, while Baartman’s captors acted out of ignorance and cruelty. Still, this is a play which makes little to no effort to empathize with Baartman’s plight; instead, she is set down on the stage, presented for our consideration, and talked about. Which is to say, she’s made a spectacle of.

Elizabeth Alexander wrote a book of poems about Baartman, and Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a novel about her, and those works, like Parks’ play, also seemed to me sadly flat. I commend all three authors for trying, since this is a story which exemplifies in microcosm so many forms of repugnant injustice and prejudice–racism, sexism, and colonialism, for starters–and so, I think, is an important one to tell. But it seems that when a particular situation is so overwhelmingly blatantly obviously horrid, artworks which try to represent it often just sort of point at it and say, “Look. Look how horrid.” Which of course we already know.

But does that mean Baartman–or Auschwitz, or My Lai, or Emmett Till–shouldn’t be represented by artists? Certainly not! I’m just saying that artists who pick up subjects like these have set themselves up for some serious challenges, to say the least.

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