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theatre review

Venus’s Daughter shows there’s a long way to go in overcoming a history of negative imagery.

If you don't know anything about Sara Baartman, you may find Venus' Daughter – a new play by Meghan Swaby – hard to follow.

A quick primer then: In the early 19th century, Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman sold into slavery, was brought to London by a Scottish doctor and South African showman and exhibited half-naked in a cage as the "Hottentot Venus." The main fascination for white Europeans were her large, black buttocks.

Even after she died in poverty in France only halfway through her 20s, Baartman was kept on display. A French doctor dissected her body and pieces of it were exhibited at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris until 1974. Since Baartman's body was taken out of public view, theatre creators have regularly put it back there – this time with subversive or anti-colonialist aims.

In 1996, African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks had an off-Broadway hit with a play called Venus that fictionalized her story and gave her back some agency. Just two years ago, the white South African artist Brett Bailey controversially did the opposite with Exhibit B – a performance installation based on the 19th-century human zoo phenomenon that many felt too closely recreated the horrific practice. And now Baartman is back again in a new Canadian play premiered by the black theatre company Obsidian.

In Venus' Daughter, she appears as an ancestral spirit of sorts, who through "blackwomanmagic" helps a young Jamaican-Canadian woman named Denise learn to be more comfortable with her own body. We first meet Denise (played by the playwright herself) working at a lingerie store – where she serves a succession of women of various shapes, sizes and races (theatrically played by Akosua Amo-Adem and Kaleb Alexander) trying on undergarments.

Looking and thinking about women's bodies all day, Denise has lost all confidence in hers. As she disrobes in front of a mirror, she complains, "I feel small and massive at the same time." When her granny dies, Denise hops a plane back to Jamaica for the funeral – and this is where Baartman comes into the picture, visiting the Canadian in a moment of mid-flight turbulence and then, later, at length at the home of a family she barely knows.

Amo-Adem plays Baartman as a woman who has found positive power beyond the grave, while Alexander incarnates a parade of men who fetishized her and dehumanized her. Her story is told in snippets that prioritize poetic language rather than narrative clarity.

The scenes from Denise's life are lighter and livelier – and require less pre-existing knowledge to get. Her interactions with her Jamaican relatives were funny to me, and seemed like they were funnier for audience members more connected with that culture.

Again, the two other actors onstage are exceptional at creating characters who have an impact even in short appearances; Alexander is particularly enjoyable to watch as a nine-year-old Jamaican kid trying to hustle Denise, while Amo-Adem even manages to be moving in a brief appearance as Denise's mother.

Throughout, Swaby's play draws parallels between the cage that Baartman stood in to have her body judged by others – and the mirrors that Denise and black women stand before, judging themselves.

Two underwritten plays put together do not equal one satisfying whole one, unfortunately. And Denise's journey from insecurity to confidence is definitely less powerful than Baartman's story – in part, because Phil Akin's production is a kind of paradox. Denise speaks of her anxieties, but the performance of her by Swaby is actually a show of confidence. The production begins in a place of body-positivism, and we are simply left waiting for the play to catch up.

And yet, while the charts may have been invaded by a series of big-bottom-positive songs by women musicians in recent years – from Nicki Minaj's Anaconda to Jennifer Lopez's Booty to Meghan Trainor's All About That Bass – Swaby's play has an appeal in showing that there's still a long way to go in overcoming a history of negative imagery.

Venus' Daughter continues to Feb. 28 (