As we continue through the 21st century and try to put right the wrongs of past centuries, it’s very easy to point fingers and stay angry. A more productive method, however, is to focus on the healing that needs to happen before we can really move on. The Hottentot Venus – UNTOLD is a show that embraces this perspective without shying away from the horrific nature of the events it relates, and it emerges a stronger, better show for it.
In 1810 Sarah Baartman, a Khoisan woman from South Africa, was brought to London and exhibited in Piccadilly Circus as the Hottentot Venus (Hottentot being an onomatopoeic term used by Europeans to refer to the indigenous peoples of southwest Africa, due to the clicking sounds utilized by their languages. The term is now considered insensitive). Before crowds of people she played and sang indigenous and British songs, and was paraded about for white Europeans to gawk at what was considered to be an oversized rear end. Her life only got worse from there, but at the very least in 2002 her remains were repatriated to South Africa and laid to rest in a remote valley not unlike the one she originally came from.
Writer/performer Jacqui Du Toit presents Ms. Baartman’s story through a series of characters connected to the woman herself – a modern descendant, a a South African housemate from before her voyage to England, an English lady who sees the exhibition, a French prostitute who knew her in her final days – which work together to tell the story in a hard-hitting, emotionally impactful way. Perhaps most chilling is the British lady – Du Toit absolutely nails the physicality and mannerisms of prim Victorian femininity and has also written the scene in such a way as to give credence to both the Victorian and modern perspectives of the situation. First we are treated to a brief explanation of the Victorian phenomenon of “ethnographic exhibitions” (human zoos), before meeting a nameless British lady who explains her experience seeing the Hottentot Venus to her friend over tea. Initially the lady’s fascination comes across as naïve and potentially forgivable, but the underlying attitude of Western superiority bares its hideous teeth before too long, exposing the grim irony of such savagery being committed in the name of education and civilization.
Some sections do feel a little long – after a high-energy entrance Du Toit gives some background behind her coming upon this concept before launching into the show proper, and there is an extended movement sequence at the end that could move a little faster. Otherwise, Hottentot Venus – UNTOLD is a very polished show that tells a heartbreaking story in a captivating way that lets us appreciate the horror of the situation while also looking forward to a future in which we can heal and move past the injustices done to a thousand and more other Sarah Baartmans, whatever continent they happen to be from. Unusually for TACTICS show this one has been presented in Ottawa before – for 2 days last August at the Gladstone – but to extend the opportunity for Ottawa audiences to see this show is both a theatrical and a cultural boon for the Ottawa scene.
The Hottentot Venus – UNTOLD
Written, Staged, and Performed by Jacqui Du Toit
Consulting Director: Laurie Fyffe
Stage Manager: Louisa Haché
Lighting Design: David Magladry
Sound Design: Thabani Malaba
Presented as part of TACTICS
At Arts Court Theatre
April 20-22 @ 8pm, April 22 & 23 @ 2pm
Running Time: approximately 70 minutes without intermission