Award-winning alumna playwright speaks about writing and social change

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June 05, 2019

Art—especially theatrical art—has the unique power to inquire, to challenge, and to help heal long-festering societal wounds. In award-winning playwright and alumna Lydia Diamond’s Voyeurs de Venus, our nation’s ugly racial past and its slow-moving reckoning get a closer examination on a Northwestern stage.

Diamond (C91) returned to her alma mater May 26 for a discussion following the final performance of Venus at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for Performing Arts’ Josephine Louis Theatre. Also joining her was director Tasia Jones and the student cast of the show.

Voyeurs de Venus tells the story of a modern woman researching historical figure Saartjie Baartman, who was brought from the Eastern Cape of South Africa to London in 1810 to be exhibited in freak show circuits as “The Hottentot Venus.” After her death, she was dissected and parts of her body were preserved and put on display at the Museum of Man in Paris until 1974. During her life and after her death, Baartman was written about in derogatory terms and often fetishized.

 “All of the passages read in this play were real passages from books. There are thousands of books of explorers and scientists and anthropologists, Europeans who went to places with brown people and wrote about them—us—as though we were animals,” Diamond said, adding that the subject matter covered in the play is often so difficult that it’s only been staged three times since its first production in 2008.

“People don’t want to touch it,” said Diamond, who has won the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago Black Excellence Award, an American Alliance for Theatre and Education Award, and many others. “It’s disturbing and I think people stay away, but I’m very grateful to Northwestern for putting this on. It was brave and wonderful to do so.”

The play pivots back and forth between the lives of Baartman and Sara Washington, the modern academic struggling to write about Baartman’s life without exploiting her. Jones, the director of the play and a former student of Diamond’s, said she was drawn to the subject matter immediately.

“Sara is grappling with ‘How do I tell this story—and can I even tell this story—without causing further harm, without exploiting the figure of Saartjie Baartman?’ And the question still remains for me: is that possible?” Jones said. “And a lot of the work that I do, I’m encountering that same question. For me, it was important to investigate that question as an artist and also pose that question to the audience. How do we engage with history, how do we filter that history, how do we take ownership of that history and how do we tell those stories without perpetuating harm? And can we? Is it even possible?”

Northwestern student performers talked about the effect the play had on them, and what it was like tackling complicated characters.

 “In the play, we’re connecting things from the past to the present and analyzing those connections,” said Lena Dudley, a senior Theatre major who played Baartman in the production. “As a cast, I think we were all on board with looking back at how the past affects us now.”

Diamond, who is an associate professor of theatre at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has also written Stick Fly, Smart People, and The Bluest Eye, said that as a playwright she doesn’t set out to write political plays. “This is just how I walk through the world as a black woman,” she added. She said that as she continues to write, she grows frustrated by the slow pace of social change.  

“Over decades, my plays get produced and people see these plays and they say, ‘They’ve never been more relevant,’ and that’s just disturbing,” she said. “Yes, I am still grappling with these issues because the country just won’t fix it. We refuse to figure it out. We want to be racist. We want to be sexist. We want to be homophobic. And I don’t know why. So I’ll continue to try explore those issues.”

Diamond’s new play, Toni Stone, tells the story of the first woman ever to play professional baseball. She played in the Negro leagues in 1953. The play is in previews in New York at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater.

By Cara Lockwood