A genre-bending play reflects on how our past influences our present when it comes to gender-based violence and the objectification of black bodies.

The story of Sara Baartman is synonymous with our heritage – a long litany of colonialism and trauma placed squarely on the shoulders of black women occupying the intersection of racism and sexism.

But there is another legacy we do not often associate with the “Venus Hottentot”, the woman who was torn from her home, displaced and exhibited as part of a minstrel act in 19th century England.

Venus vs Modernity, the new kid on The Market Theatre calendar, is showing from September 12-28 in Newtown, Johannesburg. The play attempts to relinquish and reclaim common representations of Sara Baartman, to give us an artistic experience that experiments with aesthetics and storytelling as resistance and catharsis.

We travel through her timeline while standing still in 2019. The play interrogates the social issues and conditions of the past and reflects them onto our present, creating a cocktail of commentary on the black feminine body as a site for violence and trauma.

Mashile as Baartman and Masina as Venus, the fantastical songbird and narrator of Baartman’s life, mirror each other, reflecting ideas of beauty and identity, personhood and womanhood with a sparkling chemistry that feels more like a celebration of Sara’s life and less like the struggle narrative we know her story to be.

The performance is fluid and dynamic, using elements of movement linked with a diverse use of language, diction and music. There are renditions of Nina Simone and Boom Shaka, gospel hymns and spoken word, hilarious anecdotes and comedic expressions using different dialects. Sara is immortalised as more than a slave, but as an artist and performer.

The characters of both Sara and Venus subvert the voyeuristic gaze that views black women as specimen and phenomenon, and takes the opportunity to shift power dynamics. Sara is given a voice by humanising her through the ability to be witty, dignified, charming and complex – not simply positioning her as a reference point for struggle.

We see Sara through Mashile’s lens as a black woman with agency and choice, who experiences pleasure and pain, descending to the darkest depths of the prop bottle of Jameson’s and soars to the highest of highs when she falls in love.

The play comes hot on the heels of the #AmINext? movement, which tackles gender-based violence and femicide, closely examining how black women are hyper-visible while being marginalised. Venus vs Modernity undercuts these ideas of simultaneously being other at the same time as being object of desire, with limericks and haikus carrying the sorrow on the melodies of Masina’s sonorous voice.

The performance invites us, in the most intimate, vulnerable way possible, to interrogate our own perceptions of how we occupy and take up space vicariously through Baartman.

Perhaps the most unique part of the play happens outside the performance. There is a decompression space held for black women in the audience at the end of each performance to reflect on the interpretations and implications of the production.

“We have one rule for the discussion and it’s that only black women are allowed to speak,” said Mashile at the post-production discussion on Tuesday, September 24.

“We advise everybody else to listen,” Mashile told the audience.

Mashile described the reason behind the rules of engagement as offering a safe space for black women to be transparent and vulnerable without fear of discrimination. The conversation featured discussions on colourism, body-shaming and how we erase gender non-binary and trans women in the history of gendered violence.

“These kinds of conversations don’t exist anywhere in the mainstream and when black women do try to speak about these things, it’s not safe,” she said.

“It’s in the interest of creating a safe environment, but also in the interest of allowing other people to listen to things you’re not going to hear anywhere else because women are getting trolled or silenced or fired if they say the things they want to say.”

Masina touched on her choice of costume, a bejewelled form-fitting cat suit, as a deliberate ode to plus-sized black women rejecting cultural norms that seek to police their dress and behaviour.

“You wouldn’t think of a person of my body size being on stage in a cat suit; I wanted to liberate a lot of women to show them if I can rock it, it means you can rock it too. It is power,” said Masina.

The play makes its way to Amsterdam in the Netherlands for the Afro-Vibes Performing Arts Festival from October 9.

FEATURED IMAGE: Lebo Mashile stars as Sara Baartman in Venus vs Modernity, the hit Market Theatre play that blends didactic forms of storytelling with movement, visual art and song. Photo: Provided