Race, gender, sexuality and body parts

Low-cost preview
Feb. 20
8 p.m.
Feb. 21-March 1
Lincoln Performance Hall
Tickets: $9/$8/$7, available through the PSU Ticket Office

This winter’s production by the theatre arts department is “Venus,” a play written by Suzan Lori Parks. This Pygmalion story with a very sharp twist is directed by theater arts assistant professor Karin Magaldi.

A wildly theatrical piece, “Venus” illuminates the troubling intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality in our culture.

Parks’ play is based on the 19th century woman known as Venus Hottentot. A member of the Griqua peoples, she lives in an arid area of southern Africa where survival depends on retaining moisture. That means accumulating extra layers of fat, which show up on the women, especially in their thighs and buttocks.

“Venus” is the sad story of a black woman exploited as an oddity in a side show. But this isn’t what compelled Parks to write “Venus.” Instead, it was an overheard conversation.

“I knew nothing about her story,” she said. “It wasn’t that at all. It was the fact that I heard the person say, ‘You know, that black woman with the big butt.’ That’s what I heard. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s very interesting.’ I’ve always been interested in history and how it works and how it doesn’t and how I can work it. And so this black woman with the big butt, a woman with a past, you could say, a woman with a big past was perfect. She was just sort of perfect for any play that I would write.”

In “Venus,” Parks makes fun of the Europeans’ obsession with what they called Hottentot’s “heathen buttocks” in scenes featuring the Baron Docteur, another character based on historical fact. He has a torrid love affair with Venus. But when she dies, he ends up dissecting her.

“Venus is certainly about something that’s part of everybody’s life,” Parks said. “It’s about love.” Love definitely occurs on several levels in her play. Venus and the Baron Docteur are embroiled in a doomed love affair. In a play within the play called “For the Love of Venus,” a bride-to-be temporarily loses her groom.

“Love has many faces, and these are in a way the three faces of love. And in the front, the first face is a face of the Venus Hottentot, the loved, the love object. And off to this one side is the face of the unloved, which is the bride-to-be, the play within the play, the young woman whose fianc퀌� doesn’t love her anymore. She has to undergo this series of disguises and ruses to get him to love her again. And the third face off to the other side is the face of history, or accumulated memory,” explained Parks.

Based upon the true story of Sarah Baartman, parts of her body were preserved in jars, and her skeleton and a plaster cast of her body were on display in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris until 1985. She was only returned to South Africa last year, and was formally buried Aug. 9, 2002.

Magaldi also is a member of Portland’s Drammy Committee, and her directing credits include “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning, Juliet)” (PSU, 2002) and “Spinning Into Butter” (CoHo Productions, 2001 and 2002).