The facts are horrible. The play that Lydia R. Diamond has built from them is beautiful. In the tension between these two conditions lies art.
Diamond's play, "Voyeurs de Venus," has been produced only once before its current staging by Company One, and it's easy to see why. Aside from the considerable production demands - 35 scenes in multiple locations, dream sequences, a fair number of special effects - the play explores racial issues, historical events, and cultural images that are deeply disturbing, and it does so without simplifying or resolving the questions it raises. It is a tough, challenging, complicated piece of work.
It is also an essential one. And in Company One's production at the Boston Center for the Arts, directed with acuity and grace by Summer L. Williams, it is receiving the staging it deserves. At times frightening, at times moving, and at times startlingly funny, this "Voyeurs de Venus" is never less than riveting to watch.
The "Venus" of the title is a Khoisan woman from southwest Africa named Saartjie Baartman, who early in the 19th century was exhibited in London and Paris as the "Hottentot Venus." She would stand, naked and caged, as Europeans gawked at what, to them, was her unusual anatomy. This exploitation continued even after her death; Baartman's dissected genitalia - and a wax mold of her buttocks - remained on display in a French museum until just a few years ago, when her remains were finally repatriated and given a proper burial.
Diamond presents all these facts through the lens of another woman, her own fictional creation. Sara Washington is a contemporary black scholar, a rising star in anthropology who secures a major book deal to write a novel about Baartman - then finds herself struggling with history, her publisher (who becomes her lover), and her own doubts as she delves into Baartman's story.
By repeating the most horrific aspects of the tale, is she only contributing to further exploitation of a dead woman? Are her motives contaminated by ambition, academic or otherwise? Does presenting racist images, even in order to deplore them, only perpetuate stereotypes that were better forgotten? In short, by examining the "voyeurs," is she merely joining their ranks?
Sara wrestles with all these questions - and so, of course, does Diamond, as her play engages in the same issues the characters face. Heck, it doesn't just engage in them; it embodies them, bringing them to life on the stage in front of us - and thus turning us into voyeurs and participants as well.
No wonder Sara has nightmares, and no wonder Diamond shares those nightmares with us, in a succession of vivid interludes acted out by a small troupe of dancers. The first image of the play gives a hint of what's to come in these dream sequences: Black women in demure Victorian lace gowns twirl daintily as bare-breasted white women in grass skirts shimmy and stomp - and all of them, in Jarrod Bray's pared-down but ingenious set design, are dancing on a revolving stage that surrounds the raised platform where, we soon realize, Sara lies asleep in bed with her white husband.
The dancers will return in more and more strange and disturbing guises, along with other images from Sara's dreams, which are indistinguishable from the fruits of her research. She's haunted not just by Saartjie Baartman but by Georges Cuvier, the French scientist who, appallingly, conducted "research" on Baartman's body both before and after her death. Some of Cuvier's scenes play like a horror flick - as well they might.
But what's remarkable about Diamond's work, and what comes through in Williams's sensitive production, is how expertly she navigates the shifts in tone from realism to horror fantasy and back again. Both in calm, daylight conversations and in wildly surreal nightmares, Diamond's writing is precise, subtle, and effective. The facts are outrageous, but her treatment of them never is.
The performances here, especially by Marvelyn McFarlane as a strong and complicated Saartjie and Kortney Adams as a painfully self-aware Sara, are equally layered and intelligent. Michael Steven Costello's Cuvier occasionally goes over the top - but then how could it not? Meanwhile Quentin James, as the smooth black publisher, and Nathaniel Hall Taylor, as the awkward white husband, add nuance and complexity to their relationships with Sara, fraught, as they must be, with issues of race, gender, and power.
If all that sounds like a heavy burden for actors to carry, it is. But Diamond always examines these huge topics through a specific human lens, and she always lets her characters reveal themselves rather than explaining them. Thanks to her care and restraint, in "Voyeurs de Venus" we feel all the weight of a terrible history, and yet we are never crushed beneath it.