Photo: Jacqui Du Toit as narrator in The Hottentot Venus Untold.
No actor would dare become Sarah Baartman, the young South African woman who was abducted from her native Cape Town in 1810 and whisked off to London and the continent where she was paraded around public fairs and popular entertainment spots, exhibited as a freak and a strange savage. Her anatomy titillated British audiences, excited French audiences and inspired French scientists to conduct positivist inspired experiments on her body just to determine whether she was a human being or a beast, shoving her inner parts into bottles of formaldehyde which ended up in the Musée de l’homme in Paris. Mme Du Toit who in no way resembles the “Hottentot Venus” clearly realized that the only way to establish a portrait of this tortured victim of racism and colonial cruelty, was to produce various testimonies of her life given by imaginary characters whose stories were based on historical fact. Given current advances in historiography, testimonials, like all forms of memory, are considered material which contributes to the construction of history. Such is the case of Latin American victims of torture or survivors of the Shoah , events where documentation is not always available and where official historians were not present. Yet those who suffered, or who observed the suffering, always remember what happened and that is what is highlighted in this show.
Jacqui Du Toit, a South African actress, story teller and dancer, has created, through forms of African storytelling, where the body shows us exactly what the voice is saying, five different encounters with Baartman. She introduces her work by an apparently light hearted prologue that sets us up for these different moments that quickly take us into a world of horror and despair. Each monologue which captures a different period in Baartman’s life, reveals DuToit’s enormous talent as an actress, a story teller and a dancer whose body is so graceful, so powerful and so expressive. . She transforms herself into a young school girl, the great great great granddaughter of Sarah Baartman who takes us back to 2002 when the remains of her famous granny are finally coming home to rest in Cape Town after having spent 155 years in a glass case in the Parisian Museum of Man. She then whizzes us off to the farm where Khoisan Aunty tells us in a savory mixture of English and Khoisan, about Sarah’s unhappiness on the farm, owned by free slaves, but which creates a terrifying environment where the girl loses her family and then one night disappears and is taken off to England. Du Toit switches languages and accents and corporeal expression to the point where the different narrators who take over the story actually inhabit her body and become living, breathing people. The original Du Toit just disappears as her mimicry and corporeal control simply take possession of her body. The next narrator is an upper class British woman who is excited and horrified by this grotesquely exotic creature whom she sees in London and whom she even dares to touch! Du Toit almost embarrasses us by transforming the audience into more than willing voyeurs at this point as this woman with fine gloves and an upper-class accent makes us her accomplices as she draws us into her world of prejudice and material comfort. Then suddenly, Du Toit becomes a creature from the sidewalks of Paris who drools with sexuality, who is exploited by an “animal exhibitor”, with the stage name Reaux, as this prostitute plays up to the expectations of her audience , turning us into cruel perverted exploiters of women. Here the French prostitute is almost identified with the beautiful South African whom she pitied because she understood what this girl was suffering, since she also was brought into this sad life at an early age by her pimp. At that point, the South African’s experience becomes one of universal significance that concerns all downtrodden peoples of the world as the story telling slowly shifts into ritual mode. Jacqui Du Toit, incarnating the spirit of Mme Baartman who returns to wander into our world like an animal that has found her freedom by symbolically reconstructing her body from the parts that were imprisoned in the museum . We know that her remains were returned to Cape Town and buried in 2002 and so there is Saartjie Baartman’s soul wandering again among us as the actress worships the creation she has just unleashed upon the world.
Mme Du Toit actually summons the presence of this woman into our midst by producing multiple gripping performances and the result is an important moment of historical theatre.
Do not miss The Hottentot Venus Untold , playing this Saturday at the Gladstone theatre with performances at 3pm. 6pm and 8pm. This show is not for young children.