A Khoisan Woman (3 stars)

This article is from 2019

A Khoisan Woman

Radio play performed for recording

It is an intriguing conundrum to consider why the BBC decide to record a radio-play for later broadcast at the Fringe: while it provides an audience for a live atmosphere, the short running time exposes a relative lack of substance in A Khoisan Woman and what can be a magical conjuring of atmosphere on the radio is reduced to a work-in-progress dramaturgy that is a stark contrast to the visual feasts on offer across Edinburgh. But A Khoisan Woman takes a fragment of colonial history – the exploitation of the so-called Hottentot Venus – and fleshes it out with personality and compassion.

Zodwa Nyoni's script is an elegant miniature: following the time of Saartjie Baartman as a vaudeville attraction in Manchester, it manages to squeeze trenchant comments on nineteenth century racism and the alliance of science and voyeurism into its thirty minutes. The obnoxious name of Hottentot Venus is rejected by Baartman, who claims her real name and agency in a short, introductory monologue and by her dignity throughout her experiences with her manager and an ambiguously supportive migrant worker, and Nyoni is unsparing in her condemnation of a supposedly enlightened Europe that pokes and prods, and dehumanises, Baartman both through a debased intellectual curiosity and a more obvious taste for exotic entertainment. It is a concise and stark play that will gain immeasurably from broadcast.

The surrounding activity – an introduction to the process, and a brief post-show discussion – are bonuses that alleviate the lack of spectacle (the cast are reading from scripts, sitting in the corner before stepping up to perform, with the occasional double-take for editing: this could be interpreted as a Brechtian strategy to expose the mechanics of performance, but is clearly practical). Ironically, a touch of boorish behaviour from a white male audience member became a reminder of the continuities of privilege and arrogance that informed the colonial project and are still being challenged today.

Summerhall, run ended.

A Khoisan Woman

  • 3 stars

BBC Her skin is black. Her hair is kinky. Her hips are wide. Her tongue clicks the songs of the Khoi language. Saartjie Baartman is the proud embodiment of the Khoisan women of South Africa. But in London 1810, she is the Hottentot Venus, a freak of race and sexuality. We see her displayed as a medical curiosity by…