The “Venus” of the play’s title refers to the label of Hottentot Venus that was applied to an African woman who performed in England and France about 200 years ago. Saartjie Baartman was a Black woman of the Koi-San people in what is now South Africa, who was taken to Europe in the early nineteenth century. Calling her Venus was an ironic commentary on her beauty, emphasizing distinctive elements of her physical appearance that differed from European, classical female ideals. Baartman’s exhibition, almost nude, and her relationship with a European male empresario called Docteur, raise questions about gender and racial discrimination of that age. The broad theme of representation encompasses issues of freedom of choice—and the severe limitations that she faced—as contrasted to exploitation for profit.
Suzan-Lori Parks's play was produced in the mid-1990s, during an era when Black people of diverse ethnicities had successfully struggled for political and social power in Africa. Parks raises questions about European attitudes toward African people living among them, in contrast to the exoticization of all African people and especially women. An impressionistic approach contributes to the focus on salient themes, avoiding the impression that Parks is aiming for a factual, biographical rendering. By examining the imperialist attitudes toward subjugated peoples in earlier centuries, she encourages contemporary audiences to question their own attitudes—including as audience members watching this play.