The Department of Theater and Dance stages "Venus, this weekend, a controversial and provocative play that addresses the issues of scandal, sensation and race.

In a tale of exploitation, Pulitzer Prize—winning playwright Susan-Lori Parks' play chronicles the true experience of Saarjtie Baartman, an African woman who, in 1810, was featured in a freak show exhibition for her voluptuous body. Dubbed "The Hottentot Venus," she was seen as the exemplar of female "otherness," a mere object to be studied and observed.

Directed by Associate Professor of Theater and Dance Roger Bechtel, "Venus" is breaking new ground at Bowdoin.

"To my knowledge, no faculty in this department has ever directed a play by a leading black playwright," said Bechtel. "As a department, we needed to honor that."

"This is the first major production by Bowdoin that invokes race and recognizes the importance of the issue," said actor Elizabeth Gary '11. "We try to put race aside so often, and people often think we live in a post-racist society, which is not true."

"I think it is something that needs to be talked about," she added.

The issues of race and gender are forefront. In Parks' re-imagined history, the fictional "Venus" is portrayed as a consenting and empowered woman who willingly trades her dignity for material gain. Though based on true events, the play becomes ahistorical, as we can see applications of its message today.

Khalil LeSaldo '11, who also stars, said, "Race is a really tough issue that is approached by the play in a very interesting way that serves as a commentary on the entertainment industry."

But Parks does not limit herself to these themes.

"I think the play is extraordinary and enormously difficult," explained Bechtel. "It speaks to a lot of concerns that we still have, like race, how we deal with the 'other,' how we construct our own identities and subjectivities, how we continue to commodify and exoticize people. The list of themes go on and on."

Considering the provocative content of the play and the strong language, is this performance too controversial for Bowdoin?

"We often need a storm to clear the air," said LeSaldo. "I don't see this as being too controversial, but if it is I only see good coming out of it. We should be able to approach big issues such as these."

Gary hopes that this piece will inspire the theater department to more carefully consider race and the diversity of Bowdoin actors when choosing productions.

"There has never been a production to this scale," said Gary. "Hopefully, this will be the start of Bowdoin professors highlighting actors of different races."

The multidimensionality of the play is quite surprising. What in synopsis seems tragic, in performance is truly remarkable. It questions the choice between happiness and society, examines the values of society, and comments on the desire to fit in and the boldness to stand out.

"The story is so tragic that most people will be surprised at how entertaining and innovative the piece is," said Bechtel. "They will honestly be dazzled by the theatricality of the piece."

Attendee Issy Albi '13 was impressed with the performances.

"The play was a historically interesting and extraordinary story," she said. "It was really interesting, and the performers did a really good job making the story contemporary. It was intriguing and well handled."

Bechtel similarly commended the performers for making a serious, historical subject entertaining and contemporary.

"The students are doing just outstanding work," said Bechtel. "The play combines comedy and tragedy in equal measures; the students have really committed to the play on both levels."

"Venus" is free and open to the public. The play contains strong lanuage and strong sexual content and is intended for mature audiences only.

Performances began yesterday and will run again tonight and tomorrow night, starting at 8 p.m. There will be an extra performance at 2 p.m. tomorrow afternoon.