THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Exploring, not exploiting, a shameful history

Lydia Diamond watches a rehearsal of her play ''Voyeurs de Venus'' last month. Lydia Diamond watches a rehearsal of her play ''Voyeurs de Venus'' last month. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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CAMBRIDGE - Playwright Lydia Diamond has been compared to the likes of August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, and Wendy Wasserstein. She's earned rave reviews for her adaptation of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," which launched her onto the national stage.

But sipping a cup of coffee at a Cambridge Starbucks, Diamond is level-headed. "It's done huge things for my career but it hasn't defined me," she says. "Plus, I didn't get busier. It was just that my rejection letters came on better stationery."

In "Voyeurs de Venus," now in previews with Company One at the Boston Center for the Arts, Diamond tackles a notorious case of colonialist exploitation: It's the tale of Saartjie Baartman, a 19th-century African woman taken from her home and displayed as a sideshow attraction in Paris under the derogatory nickname "Hottentot Venus."

The true story is chilling.

Baartman's buttocks and genitalia were deemed inordinately large by European standards and thought to signify a primitive sexuality. Compared by French scientist Georges Cuvier to a female orangutan, Baartman eventually became the subject of cartoons and vaudeville plays. She ultimately succumbed to smallpox, and her remains were sliced up and preserved as medical oddities by Cuvier. After much legal wrangling, her body was finally returned to her native South Africa in 2002.

In Diamond's play, Baartman's story intersects with that of a contemporary academic and writer, Sarah, whose life unravels as she wrestles with a publishing deal for a book in which she hopes to tell Baartman's story without further exploiting her.

For Diamond it is the question within the story line that lingers: By doing this play, is she herself exploiting Saartjie Baartman?

"I think not because I'm addressing it," she answers, "but I understand if someone felt differently, and I would accept that."

Diamond, who teaches playwriting at Boston University, smiles as she contemplates her role portraying black experiences in the theater. It is an issue she wrestles with each time she has a story idea - and it keeps her tossing and turning at night.

"I am hyper-aware," she says, with a deep stare. "I am possibly even presumptuously vigilant in my desire to control and be mindful of the images I put onstage. And I say 'presumptuously vigilant' because when you think of how many people see theater, I lose a lot of sleep making sure I am asking questions that are worthy of the stage - that I am carrying the history of my family and I am aware of the way we, African-Americans, have been historically and even recently been used onstage."

She pauses for a moment.

"I feel the responsibility," she says, sweeping the dreadlocks from her face, "and to a lesser degree the burden of that."

"Venus" director Summer L. Williams says it's an honor doing a show of this caliber to kick off Company One's 10th season. "I kind of marvel at it everyday," she says of the play. "It's so much fun and so layered."

In one 45-second scene that shows a body being cut up, it is revealed to be Baartman, and suddenly Sarah, the academic played by Kortney Adams, participates in the mutilation.

"I was looking at it and saying it's horrible, it's awful but it's so beautiful," says Williams. "The scope of this thing is so wide."

Finding her art

Born Lydia Gartin in Detroit, Diamond was raised by her mother, a musician and academic, and moved from one college town to another, including Amherst; Carbondale, Ill.; and Waco, Texas, where she attended high school.

"I come from a very artistic family," she says. "Both my grandparents were educators and musicians. My grandmother was a pianist and she played piano in church and taught. My grandfather played violin. And he was interim principal of a white elementary school. They both had master's degrees, which is rare for black grandparents."

Her mother played piano and flute and managed the fine arts center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where Diamond got to meet prominent figures such as Jean-Pierre Rampal and Marcel Marceau.

An only child whose parents divorced when she was young, Diamond became used to the company of adults. She was an avid reader and took up violin, though that didn't last.

"I didn't get the musical gene," Diamond cracks. "I was in the drama club. That's how I begged off playing the violin. I said, 'Look, it's a legitimate art form. I am not good at the violin thing but I am good at the theater thing, so let me do it.' "

Intent on becoming an actor, in 1987 Diamond enrolled in Northwestern University only to discover playwriting by taking a class with the sole black professor on campus in her junior year.

After graduating, Diamond started a Chicago theater company mightily named Another Small Black Theatre Company with Good Things to Say and a Lot of Nerve Productions. "I produced plays in the basement of a vegetarian restaurant, Café Voltaire, where I worked," she says.

Her first play was "Solitaire," which had won the Agnes Nixon Playwriting Award when she was in college. Encouraged by the critical response, she wrote a couple of one-woman shows and soon became a resident playwright at the Chicago Dramatists. But her writing career only started to grow when she realized she was truly not an actor.

"My husband said to me, 'I noticed when you are acting you are a little crazy . . .' " she says, laughing. "It resonated because it was true! I am too hyper self-conscious to have been a really good actor. And realizing that I was not an actor after a decade of being an actor . . . it was scary. It was also a relief."

But it also meant some hard living, taking temp jobs to make it work. Then her play "The Gift Horse," a drama of troubled individuals, was picked up by Chicago's prestigious Goodman Theatre.

"I had this play at the Goodman, yet I was temping and broke, negotiating to take days off to be in rehearsal," she says with a sigh. "Silly me, I just decided to stay on that career path."

"The Gift Horse" led to another leap in Diamond's career: a commission from Steppenwolf Theatre Company that turned into "Voyeurs de Venus."

She began writing "Stick Fly" and "Voyeurs de Venus" around the same time, and they opened within a week of each other in Chicago. By that time, she'd become a teaching artist at Loyola University and Columbia College.

Married for 12 years to John Diamond, an associate professor of education at Harvard University ("I had to take his last name. How great is Lydia Diamond?"), they have a son, Baylor, now 4.

The couple moved to Boston four years ago, after her husband got the Harvard job. A new mother, and eventually a playwriting fellow at the Huntington Theatre Company, Diamond found it wasn't easy to adjust to being away from the theater community she'd built in Chicago.

"I remember going to the [American Repertory Theatre] to get a ticket for a show," she says. "I had Baylor on my stomach. I said, 'Hi. My husband works here so I came to get a discount ticket.' And they were like, 'Well, you don't work here.' I said, 'But it's a family discount.' They said, 'Well, not without your husband. He'd have to come and get the ticket.' I started crying in the lobby of the ART. For a long time going to the theater was kind of painful because I didn't know anyone."

But she has a community now. In fact, she is writing "Liz Estrada," an adaptation of Aristophanes's comedy "Lysistrata" about a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War, which she says could be presented as soon as next season by the Huntington.

"When you are working in the theater for 10 years you should know the other working theater people," she says, smiling. "I'm happy to say I know them now."

VOYEURS DE VENUS

At the Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, through Nov. 22. Tickets: $18-$38. 617-933-8600, www.companyone.org

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