The story of Saartjie Baartman, the inspiration for playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ avant-garde play, “Venus,” now running through Feb. 5 at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, is so ripe in drama and laden with contemporary parallels to the ongoing ways in which women are objectified and exploited, it should lend itself to a fully satisfying stage production.
The Liberty City center gets some of the parts of Parks’ drama so right you feel that giddy kick when you experience what great small theaters can accomplish. The failings of “Venus,” however, can leave one benumbed.
Parks fictionalizes elements of Baartman’s story but gets the gist. Baartman (Miami actress Athena Lightburn) was a member of the southwestern African Khoikhoi tribe who came from Africa to England in 1810, three years after slavery was officially abolished in England in 1807.
She was lured by the promise of riches by a sweet-talking, conniving Mother Showman (Vaughn Rian Saint James). The understanding, she gleefully reiterates to the Showman, was “Two years work, take half the take, come back rich.” Naturally, too good to be true.
Baartman was tricked into an abusive life — “a really s—-y life,” she’d say more than once — as a freak show attraction, rebranded Venus Hottentot, and enslaved.
In Venus’ case, the Europeans’ hypersexualization of dark-skinned women transcended eroticism and careened into debasement. She was advertised as one of “the lowest links in God’s great chain” due to an oversized buttocks, described as a “bottom like an air balloon … distorted beyond all European notions of beauty” and her large, low-hanging labia.
Director Rachel Finley gets the most out of her talented cast of eight and, working with scenic designer Jervin “Jay” Thompson and lighting designer Guy Haubrich, a bare bones stage. In the most striking visual, yards of pink fabric are used by members of the cast to mummify the lead character.
Parks cobbles information from various sources, such as scientific analyses, that she has members of the cast read aloud, even during a bizarre 15-minute intermission in which The Baron Docteur (Daniel Gil) remains on stage to read Venus’ body measurements from a medical science book. To go to the bathroom or not? Our advice: Go, even if you don’t have to.
This is the point where Parks, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in drama in 2002 for her play, “Topdog/Underdog,” overwrites obvious points and flattens the story’s emotional resonance. Women are still objectified today — sanctioned by the recent presidential election. Way overlong at more than three hours and repetitive, “Venus” should get this important parallel point across without distancing devices like excessive verbiage or self-indulgent theatrics that leap the story in and out of time as when Keith C. Wade, as the Negro Resurrectionist/narrator, portentously announces “footnotes” and out-of-sequence scene numbers.
The second act, which focuses on the relationship between Venus and Gil’s French doctor, is crippled by a protracted, excruciating scene. Here, Venus’ body measurements are taken and read aloud by the doctor, ad nauseum, as his twisted assistants grope her and masturbate to screaming orgasms.
Still, the visceral “Venus,” which is paired with the art exhibit, “Resurrecting Venus: The Cycle Continues,” at the center’s Amadlozi Gallery, earns a recommendation for fostering discussion and to witness the early work of a major talent.
Lightburn is a novice on stage, still studying the acting craft according to her program bio, but she’s a woman of immense gifts and range. Her Venus Hottentot is naive, sly, tragic and a heartbreaking pathetic figure. “Love me,” she murmurs hopefully over and over to the adulterous Baron Docteur. She, more than Parks, makes you feel the sting of more than two centuries of oppression and humiliation.
If you go
What: “Venus” by Suzan-Lori Parks
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 5
Where: Wendell A. Narcisse Performing Arts Theater at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 6161 NW 22nd Ave., Miami
Tickets: $25 advance, $30 door, $20 students and seniors
Information: 305-638-6771 or www.ahcacmiami.org