It’s not every day you get an off-the-cuff reference to the Hottentot Venus, but there it is, casually worked into the dialogue during the first-half of Red Velvet at the Old Globe. One of the characters refers to her as a casual counterpoint to the scandal of putting black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge (Albert Jones) on stage at the vaunted Covent Garden Theatre. If anything could frame Red Velvet firmly in its historical place, the story of the Hottentot Venus would.
Nobody knows her real name, as Dutch supplanted her native Khoi when unscrupulous businessmen took her from South Africa to be displayed as a human freak show in England during the early 19th Century. Sara Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, was a curiosity to the uptight gentlefolk of her era. They paid good money to gape at her steatopygic derriere and speculate on her reputedly animalistic sexuality. The seemingly genteel English found no fault in freak shows and human zoos, which often displayed black people as evidence of the “missing link” between modern man and earlier iterations of human evolution. Baartman was hardly the only African exported against her will to Europe to satisfy the curiosity of white people, but her story resonates because she was treated as such a perverse caricature of a human being, and subjected to such degradations purely for the amusement of the leisure class.
At one point, Sara Baartman ended up in court, as abolitionist parties sought to prove she was being held against her will. Her managers produced a contract, alleging that the illiterate Baartman had consented to her captivity, and the matter ended there. Such contracts were unfortunately commonplace at the time, but today are no more enforceable than slavery itself because courts (in the U.S. and elsewhere) have determined that contractually obligated personal services violate at least the spirit of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Sara Baartman died of an unknown infection about 20 years before Ira Aldridge’s performance at Covent Garden. Her remains were not restored to South Africa till 2002.
1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Red Velvet plays through April 30 at the Old Globe.