“Voyeurs de Venus” closes Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts mainstage season May 17 to 26 in the Josephine Louis Theater, 20 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus. “Voyeurs de Venus” is a fascinating play about sideshow sensation Saartjie Baartman, (“The Hottentot Venus”), and the professor writing her story. Lydia R. Diamond’s bold and often humorous drama explores the subjects of power, race, relationships and publishing.
Sara, a young African-American scholar of pop culture, is writing a book about the 19th-century South African Khoisan woman Saartjie Baartman, who was exploited as the sideshow attraction “The Hottentot Venus.” The deeper Sara delves, the more she is forced to confront her own identity and complicated relationships. Haunted by dreams about Saartjie and pressured by her publisher, Sara struggles with the moral dilemma of honoring Baartman’s life and advancing her own career with a bestseller.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company commissioned Northwestern alumna Diamond (’92 Communication) to write “Voyeurs de Venus” and it went on to win the 2006 Joseph Jefferson Award winner for “Best New Play.”
Director and Northwestern MFA candidate Tasia A. Jones took time out to answer a few questions about the play and her role:
1. Reading about Saartjie Baartman, it would seem this topic would be challenging for a director. What do you regard as the primary challenge you encountered directing this play?
The play suggests that history is a fabrication because it is filtered through the lense of the historian. I had to leave the idea of credible research behind when investigating the “historical” characters in this play. We don’t have a singular full account of Saartjie’s Baartman’s life which leaves room for interpretation, and interpretation can be dangerous.
My primary challenge in directing this play was the same challenge faced by our protagonist. How do I tell a story rooted in exploitation and violence without perpetuating further harm? It’s a tightrope walk and I hope our production has lived up to that challenge.
2. It is likely that the audience will be introduced to some new facts and ideas. What is the take away that you hope would stay with the audience?
I hope people come away with a better understanding of our society and themselves. How are we voyeurs in our everyday lives? What images and stories do we accept as fact rather than fiction?
3. Can you share any special moments that you have experienced in rehearsing this play?
I have an amazing cast, crew, and design team. They have all given so much to this production. Witnessing these young actors grow into themselves through this work and find their own artistic voices has been a joyful experience. There are some truly stunning performances in this play. Felicia Oduh (Sara) and Lena Dudley (Saartjie) have such a beautiful connection and it’s been lovely to watch that translate to their characters who have such a complex relationship in the play.
NOTE: “Voyeurs de Venus” is recommended for mature audiences (15 years and up) for its depictions of partial nudity, sexual intimacy, violence, blood, strong language and suggestion of rape.
Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 for the general public, $22 for seniors (62+) and area educators, $20 for Northwestern faculty and staff and $10 for students ($6 in advance) for Northwestern students.
Tickets are available on the Wirtz Center website, by phone at 847-491-7282 or in-person at the Wirtz Center box office located in the lobby of the Ethel M. Barber Theater, 30 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.
Box office hours are Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. The box office is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
The Wirtz Center is a member of the Northwestern Arts Circle, which brings together film, humanities, literary arts, music, theater, dance and visual arts.
Post Show Discussion with Lydia R. Diamond and Tasia A. Jones
May 26, 2 p.m.
Josephine Louis Theater
20 Arts Circle Drive
Playwright and Northwestern alumna Diamond joins director and MFA candidate Jones for a post-show conversation immediately following the performance.
Explore arts programming at Northwestern on the Arts Circle website
Photos: Justin Barbin Photography