By David Bisaha
Rehearsals are now underway for Venus, opening at University of Pittsburgh Stages on October 24. A few weeks ago, I sat down with Venus director and University of Pittsburgh directing faculty member Cynthia Croot.
The University of Pittsburgh Stages production follows Croot’s productions and adaptations of Venus in South Africa, New York, and Croatia. We chatted about her conceptualization of this production, some of her past professional directing work, and her sustained interest in and creative obsession with Suzan-Lori Parks’ play.
What is the play about, for you?
The play fundamentally is a play about a failure of ethics, which doesn’t sound very interesting, except that the ethics here involve human beings. I think of the play as an opportunity presented in each scene for people to make the right choices, for people to be humane. And this opportunity is disappointed each time, over and over and over again.
Parks is indicting these characters though the repetition of unethical choice that happens throughout the play. We end up at the end with the Negro Resurrectionist character, whom I consider the conscience of the play. He is telling us this story as a way to remember, to caution us, and to shame us, maybe. He himself is also implicated in the injustice of the play,
There’s a saying: “If one of us is in shackles then none of us is free.” And I think in some ways that the play deals with that -- if this one person can be dehumanized in such a fashion, so dramatically and over such a long period of time, and by individuals and institutions and romantic partners and employers, and if that can happen to one person, then we are all responsible in some ways, not only for the problem but also for fixing it.
I also think that Parks is dealing with fundamental issues of what it means to be human, and she deals with that both on scientific basis in the play, when she speaks about Sarah being this symbol for the missing link when she was alive. Parks shows us all the inhumanity that surrounds this supposedly “inhuman” human. The profundity of her humanity in the face of so much inhumanity also feels at the heart of the play.
Let’s talk about Sarah Baartman. Does she also make those ethical choices, those ethical failures? That’s part of what surprised about the play. She doesn’t function in the same way as everyone else, but she is also not a hole in the center of the play, or a victim all of the time.
No. And she’s not a cipher, either. But she’s not complicit in the same way that the other characters are in her situation.
When I was first working on this play in South Africa, there was a lot of conversation about the ethics of prostitution, and what a person has a right to do with their body or not. I got into a conversation with my collaborator about it, and she said, “How much volition do these women actually have about this choice?” And I think that’s what Parks is showing us with Sarah; that yes, she is making choices, but she is making them within such a limited spectrum. She is making them within such a bounded universe that there is no real freedom inside of it.
And so, she may be complicit in some ways about where she ends up, but I don’t know that she had any real options. We look at the court scene, for instance, in which she is defending her right to show herself. How else was she going to support herself? What other options did she have? So that doesn’t speak to me about freedom, it speaks to me about inhumanity. It speaks to me about impossibility of positive choice.
And will some of those thoughts from that experience in South Africa form the production here at Pitt?
Part of my understanding of play came from working on it in South Africa. We ended up doing one of the shows in Cape Town, at the Sarah Baartman Women’s Center on the day that she was repatriated -- the day that her body was buried. It was for an audience of her descendants, from the same tribe she belonged to. It was a very intense moment in history for the people there, to have Sarah come home.
The thing that struck me was that while it had a very specific context for this community, it was also a very intensely American play. Partly this is because of the idiomatic speech that Parks uses, which references traditions of performance in this country, especially African-American performance. She is dealing with an American psyche as much as she is dealing with an historic South African figure, and I’m excited to do a full production in the United States for that reason. The production in South Africa had a very specific context that we can’t possibly recreate or even try to echo here, and I don’t want to try to. I want to see what it means to this audience here now.
Is there any relation also to The Venus Project, the adaptation you were working on in Croatia?
The thing that so impressed me about this play, and why I keep coming back to it as much as I do, is that as much as it is a play about return to home and what the nature of home is, it’s also a play about institutionalized slavery and human remains.
Equally, when we were working on it in Croatia, I saw it as a play about human trafficking. We were doing a lot of research there about the sex trafficking industry and the sex trade. Off the coast of Zagreb there are ships that are basically pleasure ships, and tourists go and visit them, and there are prostitutes on board. It is so widely accepted that there are actually tourist brochures that have pictures of these pleasure boats. This is just shocking to me!
I don’t think we realized until we dug into the play a bit how close the story that Parks tells is to the contemporary story of a trafficking victim. You start in a place of want, that you have some aspiration to be in a better position economically, socially or intellectually. Someone promises you something; they say yes, come to this place and it will be better. And you go, and it’s not what they said it was. You become trapped in a cycle of trying to survive inside of this new circumstance where you are essentially an alien.
And so, that was the primary thrust of the research we were doing in Croatia, looking at that story in relation to contemporary trafficking victims. We actually worked with Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), an organization that works with trafficking victims, and shared this storyline with them. The reflection we got was that yes, this is how that works. That’s how it worked in the 1800s, and that’s still how it works today. That’s shocking.
That sounds like a very important thing to be saying over and over again. I can see how that would resonate now.
Absolutely. I think about Laura Anderson Barbata, a Mexican performance and visual artist based in Mexico City and New York, who helped repatriate the remains of another freak show/side show personage named Julia Pastrana. Julia was exhibited in a very similar way to Sarah, and was just this year repatriated to Mexico. There are still these human remains in these institutions.
We have a very strange relationship with death. We don’t know what it means to have a body in our possession. We have the Bodies exhibit and the controversy surrounding its alleged use of Chinese prisoners, who perhaps didn’t give their permission. We look at places like the Mütter Museum, which is a physician’s museum with many body parts in it. We look at native remains in museums all over the world. How institutions are dealing with the humanity of these remains is also very interesting.
Cynthia Croot directs Venus, opening October 25 in the Studio Theatre, produced by University of Pittsburgh Stages.
Image: Saartje Baartman’s grave, Cape Town. Photo by Nick Roux, 2006.