Regional Reviews: San Diego
Voyeurs de Venus
In the Chicago of 2002, Sarah Washington (Cashae Monya), a confident black anthropologist and professor, decides to write a book about an 1800s Khoikhoi woman, Saartjie Baartman (Joy Yvonne Jones). The South African, nicknamed the "Hottentot Venus," lived a tragic life in Europe as a sideshow attraction, and was considered a freak because of her large buttocks. Sarah becomes deeply affected by Saartjie's story and even imagines herself talking to the woman. Sarah's investment in her subject's past affects her relationships with her caring husband James Bradford (Justin Lang) and a publisher named James Booker (Cortez Johnson). Her obsession grows, and theatregoers get to see Saartjie's decline depicted onstage.
Diamond's script is meant to equally entertain and provoke. Her clever dialogue builds to the serious situations that occur later in the play. Act one is often very funny, but there are instances where her style of writing tries a little too hard to be stylish. The playwright plays around with time in ways that don't always seem to enhance the plot or themes. Those issues are practically gone by the time act two starts, because Diamond's narrative choices feel more natural to the various events onstage. Co-founder and former Artistic Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and her crew present a nonlinear narrative and create smart depictions of the different time periods.
Sonnenberg presents Chicago, 2002, as a place that will feel familiar to San Diegans, while depicting 1800s London and Paris as grim and harsh environments. Shelly Williams's costumes and Justin Humphres' set are equally important in providing the extreme contrasts between the two centuries. The director uses different parts of the stage to show Sarah's scenes, historical flashbacks, and dance-filled visions. Set to music provided by sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood, Michael Mizerany's choreography covers different types of movement, from a modern sensual style (with Nate Parde's lighting contributing to the raunchy atmosphere) to African dance. His work can also be hilarious, such as a sequence set to "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" with 1970s inspired choreography. Working just as hard as the crewmembers is the ensemble, with the stars giving complex performances.
A quartet of performers carry most of the action. Monya capably plays Sarah's transition from a self-assured thinker to someone full of self-doubt, and her character arc is affecting mainly because of Monya's committed acting. Equally effective is Jones, who intensely reenacts Saartjie's struggles. Justin Lang's range as an actor is on display in his portrayal of both the charismatic and likable Bradford and the cruel French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier. Johnson also stands out as James, a man who shares opinions that can be uncomfortable and also intelligent. Max Macke, Fred Harlow and Nancy Ross play smaller roles, yet they each hold the audience's attention in portraying men and women who are important to the plot.
Diamond's brave and unique mix of fact and fiction gives people a night full of raw emotion, witty dialogue, and courageous performances. Moxie should be commended for raising awareness about Saartjie.
The Voyeurs de Venus, through September 9, 2018, at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $27.00 and can be purchased online at www.moxietheatre.com or by phone at 858-598-7620.