Sorry, Saartjie

Playwright Lydia Diamond says Saartjie Baartman has been “floating around” in her head since college. “She’s a historical person who comes up a lot for women, African-American women in particular,” she says. “I was thinking about the role of black women in the media, the way we’re either oversexualized or desexualized. And I was also thinking what it means to write for different audiences, and how the story changes depending upon the voyeur.” Baartman was a young Khoisan working for a Dutch family near Capetown in 1810 when the brother of her employer suggested that Europeans would pay handsomely for a look at her. He facilitated a trip to England, where she was exhibited and became famous as the Hottentot Venus.

The fascination with Baartman stemmed from her ethnicity and her anatomy, both of which seemed exotic to 19th-century Europeans, according to historian Stephen Jay Gould, who included an essay on Baartman in his 1985 collection, The Flamingo’s Smile. Khoisan women were known for impressively proportioned rear ends, Gould wrote, and Baartman was apparently well-endowed in that department. They were also said to sport a genital flap of perplexing origin. Baartman, who was exhibited nearly nude in a cage, allowed her rear, but not her “apron,” to be shown. But after she fell ill and suffered an early death (in France, where she was also exhibited, in 1815), anatomist Georges Cuvier dissected her private parts and identified the “apron” as an enlargement of the inner lips of the vulva. A jar containing Baartman’s preserved genitalia remained in the collection of the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, along with her skeleton, until 2002, when South Africa won a protracted diplomatic and legal battle with France. Her remains were returned to her homeland, where she was, at last, given a proper burial.

Diamond says it was that controversy that brought her simmering thoughts about Baartman to a boil three or four years ago, about the same time Steppenwolf approached her about a commission. Artistic director Martha Lavey and Edward Sobel, director of new play development, had seen Diamond’s The Gift Horse at the Goodman and wanted to know what else she was working on. She presented them with two ideas, and they selected the one about Baartman. Diamond spent six months researching and the next two years working on the play that became Voyeurs de Venus. Steppenwolf released it after a couple private readings, and Chicago Dramatists, where Diamond has been a resident playwright for eight years, picked it up. Previews begin this weekend for its first full production, directed by Russ Tutterow; the official opening is March 17.

Chicago’s hot right now for Diamond, who moved to Boston a year and a half ago, where she’s also a resident playwright with the Huntington Theater. The second idea she mentioned to Steppenwolf–a family drama about the search for a father–has come to fruition as Stick Fly, which will open in a Congo Square production directed by Chuck Smith at the Duncan YMCA just one week after Voyeurs de Venus opens. On top of that Steppenwolf recently announced that they’ll remount her adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in the fall. The Northwestern University graduate, 36, says she thought of herself as an actor through college and in her first years in the business, and “didn’t quite get” that she could be a playwright until she hooked up with people like former Northwestern adjunct faculty member Charles Smith and found Chicago Dramatists.

Baartman’s compelling story isn’t an easy one to handle. Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks took it on a few years ago in Venus, a play that won an Obie in 1996 but collected mixed reviews. Diamond says she deliberately avoided Parks’s play until her own was written, and wasn’t influenced by it. Voyeurs de Venus is about both Baartman and a fictional contemporary author setting out to tell Baartman’s story. The stain of its central issue, exploitation, spreads to include the contemporary character. “By telling [Baartman’s] story, are you paying homage or furthering the degradation? That’s her dilemma,” Diamond explains. It’s Diamond’s dilemma too. “We’re all implicated,” she says.

The Lyric’s Loss

Just a few years ago Lyric Opera was singing the praises of an extraordinary patron: Cuban refugee and self-made billionaire Alberto Vilar. Celebrated as a “modern Medici” in a profile commissioned and published by the Lyric during the 2000-’01 season, Vilar was said to have a generosity of “Renaissance proportions that stagger the imagination.” Vilar, who underwrote Lyric productions of Alcina (1999) and Otello (2001) and cosponsored The Queen of Spades (2000), was touted as a “stellar example” of the Lyric’s supporters, and was appointed national director of the Lyric Opera board. The New York-based investment guru, whose fortunes had soared during the Internet bubble, was the benefactor of major opera companies in Europe and the United States, including Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Metropolitan, which renamed its Grand Tier seating and restaurant for him. According to the Lyric profile he’d already given or pledged $200 million; a $50 million pledge to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and another $20 million for the Met soon followed.

Those were the good times. A recent New Yorker article by James B. Stewart chronicles Vilar’s operatic downfall. It turns out the supposed upper-class refugee was born in New Jersey, and his fabled wealth has gone the way of his Cuban childhood. Arrested last May for fraud and embezzlement (a $5 million investment by a longtime client that failed to yield interest payments was the trigger), he was unable to come up with $10 million for bail. Calls to his friends on the boards of the opera companies that had feted him went unanswered–only Valery Gergiev, of the Kirov Opera, responded–and Vilar spent four weeks in jail before the bail was reduced enough to spring him. He’ll stand trial next month, along with his business partner, Gary Tanaka. The New Yorker reports that Vilar’s name was erased from the Grand Tier and restaurant at the Met in 2003 after he failed to meet some of his commitments. Stewart’s story doesn’t mention Lyric Opera, but it’s been reported previously that Vilar also failed to fulfill his Chicago pledges. I wondered how much they’d been stiffed and called the Lyric to find out. I might as well have been dialing from jail.

Lydia Diamond

When: Fri 3/17, 11 AM and 1:30 PM

Where: Columbia College Ludington Bldg., 8th floor, 1104 S. Wabash

Price: Free

Info: Diamond is appearing as part of the Story Week Festival of Writers; for a complete schedule, see page 22.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.