Obsidian Theatre celebrates its 15th anniversary—and Black History Month—by paying homage to Sarah Baartman with the new play Venus’ Daughter.
“Apple bottom.” “Bubble butt.” “Junk in the trunk.” “Whoopie cakes.” At one point in her new Obsidian Theatre play, Venus’ Daughter, Meghan Swaby reels off an Urban Dictionary’s worth of euphemisms for the posterior—particularly the well-rounded female version made fashionable of late by the likes of Beyoncé, J. Lo, and that most shameless of tushie flaunters, Kim Kardashian.
But Swaby’s play isn’t concerned with such latter-day booty queens. Her focus is on their Black, African forerunner, Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, known to early-19th-century Europe as the “Hottentot Venus.”
Baartman was a young Khoikhoi woman from South Africa who was brought to England in 1810 and exhibited publicly as a rare, exotic creature. Dubbed the Hottentot Venus (“Hottentot” being the now-derogatory Dutch term for the Khoikhoi), she was advertised as a “phenomenon of nature,” most notably because of her large buttocks (a common feature among Khoikhoi females). Long seen as a shocking victim of white colonial racism—after her death, her dissected parts remained on display in France until the 1970s—Baartman in recent years has been reclaimed by feminists and recast as a savvy woman who tried to make the best of her exploitation.
Now, the current booty fad has put her on the pop-culture radar, with rumours flying just last month (and since debunked) that Beyoncé was planning to star in a Baartman biopic. Swaby herself admits she first discovered her story on YouTube while checking out music videos by twerking rapper Nicki Minaj.
“In the sidebar there was something about Sarah Baartman,” recalls the vivacious young playwright-actress during a pre-rehearsal interview backstage at the St. Lawrence Centre. “I clicked on it and I was just, ‘Whaat?’ I was astonished that I’d never heard about this woman’s story before.”
Although Baartman’s life has already been dramatized by Suzan-Lori Parks in the 1996 play Venus, and again in Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2010 film Black Venus, novice writer Swaby set out to craft her own version. While participating in Write from the Hip, a script-development program run by the feminist Nightwood Theatre, she immersed herself in research and came up with what she calls a “National Geographic-type, docu-theatre” piece.
Then she took her chunky script to Philip Akin, artistic boss of Obsidian, Toronto’s most prominent Black theatre company.
“I read it and I said it didn’t interest me in the least,” says Akin bluntly, seated beside Waby on a couch in the St. Lawrence Centre’s green room. The 65-year-old director has seen more than enough historical dramas about Black lives—he wanted a personal play from Swaby that spoke to the here and now.
That’s when Swaby realized she’d been viewing Baartman through the lens of white historians and not making the most obvious connection. “As a Black woman, when I see a picture of Sarah Baartman, I see my body type,” she says. “I see my figure and the figures of the women in my family. We all share those similarities.”
The result is a play that entwines the story of Baartman with the present-day experiences of Denise, a young Jamaican-Canadian woman struggling with issues of self-image and identity. As Denise takes a trip back to Montego Bay to attend her grandmother’s funeral, Swaby draws parallels between the objectification of Baartman and the ongoing disrespect for Black female bodies. It’s a poetic, fantastical, and often comical work that can bounce from the wilds of colonial-era South Africa to the lingerie department of a Toronto Hudson’s Bay store.
“I think it’s a really unique take,” Akin says. “It’s mythic and it’s huge and it’s artistically challenging, as much for Meghan as it is for me as the director.” Obsidian has been developing the play for two years and is now using it to kick off the theatre’s 15th-anniversary season—appropriately enough, during Black History Month. The production, which opens tonight at the Theatre Centre, features Akosua Amo-Adem (who plays Baartman), Kaleb Alexander, and Swaby herself in the semi-autobiographical role of Denise.
“She’s a version of me,” Swaby explains, “but also of young Black women in my life and all around me who don’t stop to question what society tells us about ourselves. We’re either the butt of jokes on Maury Povich or video vixens. It’s too sad.”
Swaby grew up in North York, was raised by a Jamaican mother, and attended Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts (where Amo-Adem was a fellow student) before going on to study acting at the University of Windsor. Toronto audiences have seen her in SummerWorks shows and lately in the World Stage remount of Sheila Heti’s All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. Swaby’s move into playwriting was partly driven by the shortage of theatre scripts for young Black actresses.
“That’s been the impetus for a lot of young Black women writers,” Akin observes. He says that African-American playwright Katori Hall, whose acclaimed drama about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Mountaintop, was produced by Obsidian in 2014, started writing plays for the same reason.
Obsidian has played a major role in bringing Black playwrights to Canada’s stages for the past 15 years. The company launched with a splash in 2002 with the premiere of Djanet Sears’ The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, which was later presented commercially by Mirvish Productions. (It also received a major revival by Montreal’s Centaur Theatre and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre.) More recently, the company has enjoyed hit productions of Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (a joint venture with the Shaw Festival), and the musicals Caroline, or Change and The Wild Party, both in association with Acting Up Stage.
While Obsidian’s work with other companies has helped give Black artists broader exposure, Akin says there’s still a lack of Black and other non-white voices being heard at Toronto’s established theatres. And when they are, he says the motives are less than pure. “Frankly, a lot of it is just gamesmanship: ‘We should partner with this or that [diverse] company, it’ll look great on our grant applications.’ Anything to avoid getting something like #CanStageSoWhite trailing you around Twitter,” he adds with a laugh, referring to the recent shaming of Canadian Stage over the all-white slate of writers and directors for its 2016-17 season.
Akin believes an attitude of tokenism still exists at the bigger theatres. “This shouldn’t be about browning the stage, but about browning the companies,” he says. “To be a raisin in the oatmeal is actually meaningless. The companies have to change. When the artistic teams become multi-racial, a lot of the issues are going to be solved.”
In the meantime, Obsidian continues to give a leg up to budding Black artists such as Swaby. Akin is especially excited by Venus’ Daughter because he believes it goes beyond the stereotypes and platitudes associated with the typical Black history lesson. “The insights that Meghan brings to it are at a much higher intellectual and conceptual level than most plays that are supposedly about Black subjects,” he says. “I love that.”