Talking Stories and Sideshows with Suzan-Lori Parks
At a cocktail party in the mid-nineties, Residency One playwright Suzan-Lori Parks had recently finished an essay about Josephine Baker called “The Rear End Exists” when she overheard someone talking about another black woman whose derriere was well-known: Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Venus Hottentot” who lived part of her life as a popular exhibit in the London and Paris sideshows of the 1810s, and who was a peripheral figure in a play Parks was writing. That snippet of conversation sparked what would become a whole new play, Venus – Parks’ fantastical retelling of Baartman’s tragic life, which fellow Signature playwright Tony Kushner has described as “acknowledging the tragic, the immutable, while not extinguishing the possibility of mutation, of change.” In the middle of a busy month where she juggled multiple writing commitments (she has movies, musicals, and television shows in the works) alongside preparing for rehearsals with director Lear deBessonet, Parks sat down to chat with Literary Manager Jenna Clark Embrey about Baartman, The Bachelorette, and how the play Venus came into being.
How did you start writing Venus?
I was writing a play about something else and she was one of the characters. I overheard somebody talking about her at a cocktail party, “Oh this historical person, Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus.” It was like a bell went off, “ding ding ding ding ding!” I realized that’s who should be at the center of the play. So I did a lot of research, sitting around the library at the time because it was 1990-whatever and internet wasn’t really a thing, so we had to go to the library. I read everything I could about her and then a lot of autopsy reports of people like her and a lot about “freaks” and freak shows like that. But still, it wasn’t really coming together. Then I had a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship at the Bellagio Center on Lake Como. Really beautiful place. So I took all the notes and everything and I spent the first three weeks basically hitting my head against the wall because it just wasn’t happening. I did everything I could. I had a draft already but it wasn’t right. It wasn’t the story. It was like I was trying to find the key to a lock, it wasn’t turning – you know? I don’t know how to explain it. I can make any draft better, but I know when it’s not the right road. It was just not the right way to tell the story, so I was trying to find the right way to tell the story. Just weeks and weeks and weeks sitting at my desk at this beautiful villa.
And then the residency runs out, it was only three weeks or a month long and so I said, “Okay, great. I only have one more week, oh well.” I was like having conversations with myelf and Saartjie. I’d say, “Just tell me. Anything. Just give me something. I just need one thing.” I was listening to three pieces of music in rotation, which was John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Bach’s The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould, and then Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection. Those were my three pieces of music, over and over. Every song, every beat, every tune, every note, everything. And finally one day I heard this and thought “Ah, I got something.” It was the line: “He gave me a haircut.” That was the first line. And I knew the whole story right then. And it didn’t come out of research, it just came out of listening. There’s an aspect of this story I wasn’t getting right and then I knew what I wasn’t getting right. I wasn’t getting the intimacy right. “He gave me a haircut…” and I knew at that moment what the story was. I just wrote the whole play in maybe a week. I knew exactly what order the scenes would come in, I knew it was counting down. The whole thing. I knew all the characters, I knew how it was structured, I knew. Everything about it, I knew. And I was done before I left the residency.
What was it about the idea of the haircut that ended up unlocking the rest of the play for you?
That thing about the Baron Docteur giving Saartjie a haircut – so that was a story of Saartjie who had a horrible, horrible experience, but also part of the experience is with somebody who gave her a haircut. It wasn’t like he forced her down and cut her hair and she was struggling. She sat there while he cut her hair, which indicates a degree of trust that was there, which was violated – very important – but there was a semblance of trust that was there at one point in her relationship with the doctor. And this, people should know, is based on fact but it’s all fabricated. It’s based on fact – well, these days that word is so freaky – based on pieces of research that I did in the library about her and other “freaks.” So it’s an amalgam, it’s her story and I sort of brought in other stories of other people who were objects of interest, ridicule. It’s not the history channel. It’s an examination of the way things had happened to her which were unfortunate, the way she tried to have a better life and it didn’t work out, and the way we love now, in which there are so many similarities. The way we try to improve our lives and end up failing.
"It’s an examination of the way things had happened to her which were unfortunate, the way she tried to have a better life and it didn’t work out, and the way we love now, in which there are so many similarities. The way we try to improve our lives and end up failing."
There’s a complicated relationship between exploitation and autonomy in Venus – the “freaks” in the sideshows were able to make a living and gain some financial independence, but that cost them the ability to have control over their own image.
Exactly. For Saartjie it’s compounded, because we think of the people with the parasitic twins, with the more than two legs, you know? The Tom Thumb, or the super tall guy, or the bearded lady. You know, those folks, who in our country would you do a double take. “Look, there’s a guy with a parasitic twin!” But the “freak shows” in Saartjie’s time had black people in them. In their home towns, in their country of origin, they would not be a freak. The parasitic twin probably would be, but the black guy or the black woman wouldn’t be. They were taken out of their home context and brought into a world where they were “freaks,” but Saartjie wasn’t freak in her country. So that’s different, that’s kind of an added thing to be invited/taken or taken/invited to go to another land where you’re going to be the only one. So there’s that, there’s all that. You know, you see the freak show. Sure, you see the tattooed lady and the guy with the parasitic twin, and then you see the Native American people. “Here’s some real Sioux Indians! And they’re standing there in their Sioux Indian outfits! Wow, look at ‘em! There they are, maybe they’ll do a dance?” And there’s a lot of that going on too, so there’s a huge element of racism that’s going on for her that wasn’t a part of all the freaks stories.
Five years ago I went to Angkor Wat and I was walking around the ruins. It’s, of course, amazing. I’m like, “Oh my god! My mouth is hanging open because I’m amazed!” I was by myself with a tour guide, I was just doing a solo kind of thing. And I turn and there are some tourists... there was a tour group from China also walking nearby. But, so I’m looking, looking, looking, and I look and I see the tour group and they’re very close – maybe ten feet away – and two or three of them go, “Ahhhh!” They point and they scream... and they’re pointing at me. First I thought, “Oh they’re pointing at the amazing architecture.” So I thought, “Oh maybe it’s something amazing that I didn’t look at, that I didn’t notice?” Then I realize that they’re pointing at me and they’re screaming, and they run and they just stand and they stare at me. They had never seen a live black person and this was what was happening. Well they saw plenty of black folks on the internet but never one that was live, and they ran towards me. And this is maybe like 20 people, running towards me and I’m thinking “Wow!” and then just stand still. I’ve lived in a lot of different places so it’s happened to me enough. But as a child in Germany, or in Vermont, so it’s happened before... but not as an adult. At Angkor Wat! But I was the most exciting thing they’d seen all day, said the tour guide. And they wanted to pose with me, there was a lot of photography going on, and videos. It was really, really intense. So you think about the autopsy reports of Saartjie and of other folks that they said were “abnormal.” That’s because these scientists didn’t go to the southern part of Africa where she was from and see, “Wow, look, three out of five women have bodies like that.” But that’s sort of the racism inherent in how she was made a freak. That’s what I’m saying.
What are you interested in exploring in this new production?
I feel like everywhere I look people are talking about body positive models on the runway and what’s gender normative... all these questions we’re having because, really, what’s gender normative? 1996 when we did Venus at The Public Theater, we weren’t really having those conversations as a culture as much back then as we are now. To break it down, it’s a question of “what am I supposed to look like? Do I look like what people want or expect me to look like?” And if I don’t look like that then I’m outside the boundaries of normal and consequently outside the boundaries of love. For example, okay, number one The Bachelorette. Oh, The Bachelorette now is having this beautiful woman, I don’t know her name – fabulous, gorgeous woman – she’s the first black Bachelorette. In like 90 million years, they finally decided that it might be nice to watch a woman of color select a lover, or I don’t know I never watch the show, select a boyfriend or a spouse – whatever the show is. So the question, “What am I supposed to look like?” if you’re outside those boundaries then your possibilities of being loved are diminished. Black women are not lovable, that’s what The Bachelor’s been saying for years, or black men are not lovable. They’re not included, they’re excluded, people of color. Or on online dating they say, “If you’re a black woman, forget it. You’re not going to find a guy.”
It can be impossible to find a guy online when you’re a black woman because you are outside the boundaries of what a lover is “supposed” to look like. So it’s looks in relation to love, and that’s the conversation that we’re really having now in the culture. In 1996, not so much. Not that I wrote the play so we talk about things, I wrote the play because I love Saartjie and I think she’s beautiful and I wanted to give her a show. This is someone who I want to shine some love on. She wanted to be a star of a show and now she’s a star of a show. It’s all about her and her trials and tribulations, and how she tries to make a better life for herself and doesn’t succeed. But we all do that. We all reach, you know. We’re all reaching for something and falling short.