With a cast of four and a chorus of five, thirty-one scenes, and a number of original songs, Venus—the true-life story of Saartjie Baartman, the Venus Hottentot—is brought to life by Parks; she received her second Obie Award as the best Off-Broadway play of the year in 1996 for it. In 1810, Baartman, a member of the Khoi-San peoples of South Africa, was transported to London and Paris, where she was dubbed “The Hottentot Venus” and put on public display in near nude conditions. Her “act” generated a thriving business: the display of her genitalia and buttocks, determined to be “abnormal” by European standards, was not only the source of the attraction but also became the model for black female uniqueness during the Victorian era. These facts provide Parks with the opportunity to fashion a drama that concerns itself less with history than with the quirkiness of society. Venus follows Baartman’s experience in Europe from her departure from Africa to her untimely death in Paris and finds fascination with the relationship between this “Venus” and her sponsor, the Baron Docteur, thereby becoming a most unusual love story.
As in her other historical dramas, Venus pays more attention to paradox, humor, irony, and personal tragedy than to the facts. Parks takes advantage of the unusual situation surrounding the life and times of Saartjie Baartman to bring contemporary racial clichés and stereotypes into clear focus. Using her unique style of dialogue and relying on Brechtian techniques, she develops a situation of the side-show carnival where exhibitions of the strange and exotic were common. In her own words, Parks saw Baartman as “vain, beautiful, intelligent, and yes, complicit. I write about the world of my experience.”