Is history constrained to what we learned in eleventh grade U.S. History class? Does it admit words that were spoken but never written down? In interviews, essays, and her plays, Suzan-Lori Parks stretches the concept of history such that it grows both more ambiguous and more open to critical thinking. By exploring the history of Saartjie Baartman in Venus, Parks suggests that history as it is typically written, conceptualized, and politicized is insufficient to understanding the complexities of the human life that makes it up.
Venus follows Saartjie Baartman, dubbed the Venus Hottenton, as she seeks opportunity in London. Quickly, the city# takes her and turns her into a side-show freak. Viewers frequently cross proper physical boundaries to feel her supposedly enormous bottom. The play mimics the historical accounts of the court trial that ensued, wherein a group of concerned citizens challenged the legality of her circumstances, but the court finds that she desires to continue her performances. Eventually, a doctor offers the Venus the opportunity to leave the show-business life. A short romance ensues, but society persuades the doctor to leave the Venus so that she will die and he will be able to study her remains.
As a historical piece, viewers and critics of this play put it under extra scrutiny, and because the Venus represents a real person, critics take strong stances about the appropriateness of Parks’ representation. Some found that by putting the Venus on display within the play allows the original injustice to continue as today’s audiences gawk at Saartjie Baartman’s figure with the same voyeuristic gaze as when she was alive (63). Though, what seems to spark the most heated controversy is how Parks characterizes the Venus’s attitude toward her own situation. Coco Fusco explains critically, “the protagonist appears not only to be complicit in her exploitation, but enjoying it” (31). Others applaud Parks’ characterization as “wise” for not victimizing Baartman or trying to induce sympathy (24,75).