Review: Venus’ Daughter (Obsidian Theatre Company)

Akosua Amo Adem by Lyon SmithVenus’ Daughter is near-perfect theatre, now gracing the Toronto stage

I have a confession: I’m always a bit afraid after a show, because I know I have to write a review, and as a writer, I’m always a bit afraid I won’t find the right words. After seeing Obsidian Theatre Company’s Venus’ Daughter tonight at The Theatre Centre, I’m a few notches below terrified.

After all, how does one even begin to describe seeing what may quite possibly be the most incredible piece of theatre in their personal theatre-going experience? Venus’ Daughter – a play about the intersections of history, objectification, pop culture, self-love, and the way women’s bodies are viewed – may be that play for me.

Even now, three hours after the lights went up and the crowd whooped, hollered, and cheered through an opening night standing ovation, I still have goosebumps all over. I have this sense of “I’m not worthy of even reviewing this show,” but Mooney On Theatre has entrusted me to share my impressions, so here they are.

First, let me implicitly state my biases. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you may have noticed I gravitate towards The Theatre Centre. Often. And I tend to love the shows I see there, hence the always returning for more.

I’m a fan of Obsidian Theatre Company, and am a bit of a Philip Akin (Obsidian’s artistic director, and the show’s director) fan girl. I’m also a total sucker for anything that disrupts the white supremacist narrative of our society, and especially anything that celebrates Black women’s experiences, struggles, beauty, and triumphs. So I went in with some pretty high hopes.

Those hopes were completely satiated, and then some. My companion Yossie and I were immediately struck by the incredible staging – a sort of tunnel/cage structure, surrounded by fabric, being lit with a shimmering water effect. I don’t want to give too much away, but that staging was actually an incognito vessel for several hidden elements revealed later. We were surprised throughout the entire show.

And then in walks Venus (Akosua Amo-Adem, who also plays several other roles) – bold, commanding, soft, smiling – and I’m immediately captivated. It’s not until shortly after the play begins that I realize the titular Venus is Saartjie (Sara) Baartman – also known as “The Hottentot Venus” – not the Greek Goddess.

Baartman’s story is one which exemplifies the racist objectification, hypersexualization, and violence inflicted on Black female bodies (a legacy which continues today). She was stolen, brought to Europe, caged, and put on display like a zoo animal. If you don’t know anything about Sara Baartman, I’d suggest reading even a basic primer on her life.

In one of the most creative entrances I’ve ever seen, we then meet Cesar (played by the incredibly multi-talented Kaleb Alexander), who is at once terrifying, beautiful, and alluring. Kaleb also plays a wide variety of other characters, including 9-year old Denise (Venus’ daughter, talented playwright and lead Meghan Swaby). The sheer range of characters he manages to flawlessly portray – from Cesar, to the hilarious Kid, to the horrific Dr. George Cuvier – made his performance stand out to me.

The entire cast of three knocked my socks off. Denise’s character was so giving, raw, open, and honest, and her story so relatable – feeling small and huge, ugly and beautiful all at once – that my eyes welled up several times. Not only from the pain of similar experiences of living in a large body, but from seeing these incredible, beautiful women bring such intense pain, joy, and ultimately transformation to life in front of me.

As we watch Denise grasping her roots, facing her fears, wildly and unwillingly dancing, stage magic is happening all around us. Water is flowing and stars are shimmering via overhead lighting. Sounds and movements are perfectly timed. I found one particular scene where Venus is pulling Denise around like a marionette especially impressive.

My companion and I both agreed: we have no complaints about this show. This is theatre by, about, and for Black folks (though I believe anyone could fall in love with this show as I did). In my opinion, Toronto needs much more of it.

If you aren’t afraid of a bit of magic, intense and polarized emotions, facing the horrific realities of European colonialism’s history and legacy, and witnessing a woman’s very personal and loving journey, then get yourself to The Theatre Centre ASAP and see Venus’ Daughter. Nothing would please me more than a completely sold-out run. My companion and I may even return for another viewing with some friends.

Details

    • Venus’ Daughter is playing until February 28, 2016 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
    • Please see website for showtimes
    • Ticket prices range from $20 – $35, and are available online, or through the box office at 416-538-0988
    • This show contains nudity and mature content
    • Content warning for portrayals of sexual violence

Photo of Akosua Amo-Adem by Lyon Smith

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