by Lynn on February 20, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Meghan Swaby
Directed by Philip Akin
Set and costumes by Joe Pagnan
Lighting and projections by Kaitlin Hickey
Sound by Lyon Smith
Cast: Kaleb Alexander
Akosua Amo-Adem
Meghan Swaby

Note: I saw this at a preview performance.

A compelling new play by Meghan Swaby about body image, culture and family history, among other things, in a terrific production directed by Philip Akin.

Story. The play travels from Canada, South Africa, London, Paris, Jamaica and elsewhere. We follow a woman named Denise as she deals with her own restrictive sense of body image among other things. She also contends with her Jamaican mother who has just lost her own mother. Mother and daughter go to the funeral in Jamaica from Canada. Family difficulties are revisited. Attitudes towards women are examined and questioned, not just from Denise’s perspective, but from ours as well.

Swaby has been fascinated by the story of Sara Baartman who lived in the 1700s. She was taken from South Africa to England and put on display in side shows because of her distinctive body. The cruel way that Baartman was displayed and dealt with resonated with Swaby and she wrote a play about how we are all suckered into our attention to body image.

Production. The audience sits on three sides of the playing area. Joe Pagnan has designed a set of sloping vibrantly coloured material with metal looping rods on either side of the walls of the set. The production is sensitively directed by Philip Akin. He has a clear idea of how to create startling images.

One doctor who examined Sara Baartman walks along the side of the stage carefully taking scalpels out of his lab-coat pocket and dropping them tip end down onto the stage, where they embedded themselves. The image is chilling in suggesting what horrors Sara Baartman endured when various doctors examined her and put her on public display.

There is a raw sense of joyous sensuality when a man jumps onto his lover’s (a woman) body, sprawled on the sloping wall. He revels in her body and she reciprocates. Akin has not created a scene of ‘violation’ but a scene of sensual jubilation.

And Philip Akin is a director who can guide a dandy cast to do terrific work. Meghan Swaby is our Narrator and plays Denise as well as other characters. She is compelling and very emotional when speaking the poetry of her play, and moving as Denise who is trying to make sense of her family history.

Kaleb Alexander plays he exuberant lover, Denise’s Jamaican uncle, a British doctor and a French doctor (with the scalpels). Each character is distinct, detailed and nuanced.

As Sara Baartman, a feisty customer wanting to buy a bra and Denise’s Mum, Akosua Amo—Adem is a firecracker of invention. She is a powerhouse of an actress who can speak volumes just by grimacing and making the subtle ‘tsk’ sound. There is pride, embarrassment, compassion, fearlessness and fury in her performance as various characters.

Comment. This is Meghan Swaby’s first full-length, multi-layered play. Swaby explores body-image, how culture has defined it mixed in with family history. Swaby explores this specifically from a black perspective and therefore makes a universal statement that we all can appreciate in our own lives.

Because Venus’ Daughter is so ambitious in is scope and so varied in it’s writing—from prose to dense poetry—at times it is a touch confusing as to where we are. Swaby has such a vivid way of telling her story that I get the sense that every word is precious and it is hard to decide what to edit out and what to leave it. I felt the play could do with a bit of tightening. However one can’t help but appreciate Swaby’s artistry that has gone into the writing this, her first full-length play. The play is poetic, hard-hitting, appropriately uncomfortable when referencing history and very moving as a family story.

Venus’ Daughter
is a play that has something important to say that’s worth listening to.

Obsidian Theatre presents:

Opened: Feb. 18, 2016.
Closes: Feb. 28, 2016.
Cast: 3, 1 man, 2 women.
Running Time: 90 minutes

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