San Diego's Moxie Theatre takes new look at 19th century African 'Venus'

Have you ever heard of "The Hottentot Venus"? In 1810, a buxom and dramatically big-bottomed young woman named Saartjie Baartman was talked into leaving her native South Africa to go to England, where she was told she'd be hailed as "the burnt toast of the town." She ended up spending the rest of her short life as a sideshow exhibit in London and Paris, billed as "The Hottentot Venus," gawked at, mistreated and called "an evolutionary link between animal and man."

Moxie Theatre, whose mission is to give special attention to plays that defy female stereotypes and feature characters with "moxie," is presenting the San Diego debut of "Voyeurs de Venus," about Saartjie and Sara Washington, a 21st-century pop-culture professor who's been offered a great book deal to tell Saartjie's story.

This "fun, dance-filled spectacle tackling gender, race and class" by award-winning playwright Lydia R. Diamond is not the first play about the Hottentot Venus. Suzan-Lori Parks wrote an Obie-winning "Venus" in 1996; it was performed at UC San Diego in 2015, and Parks did an updated version off-Broadway last year. But "Voyeurs de Venus," originally produced in Chicago in 2006, looks at Saartjie through a different lens.

"It's set in the present, with flashbacks from the 19th century as part of Sara's conflicted process in trying to write about Saartjie," said director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. "What's fun is the way the story unfolds and how Sara's dreams play into the storytelling as spectacle."

Turner Sonnenberg, Moxie's co-founder and former artistic director, is a multi-award winner herself. She first read "Voyeurs" in 2013, after directing Diamond's play, "The Bluest Eye," which San Diego Critics Circle honored as Outstanding Dramatic Production that year.

"I asked Lydia to send me some more plays, and she sent me this one," Turner Sonnenberg explained. "I loved it, but it was never the right time to do it. Now is the right time. It's a big play, really ambitious, it's political and it's also entertaining — funny, sexy and thought-provoking. Like all good art, it doesn't answer many questions, but it raises some good ones."

Says Joy Jones, who plays Saartjie: "In this show, we get see Saartjie speak for herself. I love getting the opportunity to show her strength and resilience. To show her power."

This is not a play to take the kids to, but if you're interested in unusual, provocative, mind-expanding theater, including dance sequences by hotshot choreographer Michael Mizerany, you won't want to miss "Voyeurs de Venus." Opening night is Saturday, Aug. 18.

• IF YOU GO: "Voyeurs de Venus" is onstage Aug. 18-Sept. 9, 2018 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., Suite N, San Diego. Tickets: $15-$40. (858) 598-7620.

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