Chapter 7 Epic Theatre and the Culture of Spectacle

Aesthetic Figuration of Body and Race in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus

In: Exploring the Black Venus Figure in Aesthetic Practices
Author: Ljubica Matek

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In her rewriting of Sara Baartman’s story, Suzan-Lori Parks relies on the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht to mobilize contemporary readers and viewers and provoke them to reflect on the problematic issues of racial and sexual typecasting both past and present. Because Baartman was displayed as an object – a spectacle, the play Venus is also constructed as such: contextually, it heavily references Victorian freak shows, one of the most objectionable forms of spectacle, and formally it depends on the postulates of dialectic (epic) theatre, itself a type of spectacle. In this way, the interplay of the cognitive and the visual that is available in the phenomenon of spectacle is enhanced. Moreover, Parks rejects historical accuracy by pointedly adding new, fictional elements to the plot, that is Baartman’s life story, and thus prevents the audience’s identification with the protagonist. The desired effect of the audience’s alienation (estrangement) is politically motivated and crucial in epic theatre, as it engages the spectators’ critical skills about the available epistemological frameworks that can and need to be changed.