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Posted at 5:58 PM ET, 07/16/2009

At the Fringe Festival: 'Deconstructing the Myth of the Booty'

By Nelson Pressley
Fringe Festival

Body, race, gender: The Saartjie Project dives deep into these fraught issues at the Fringe Festival in "Deconstructing the Myth of the Booty." It's one of those rare shows that is utterly worthwhile even though the performance is sometimes shaky; this nine-woman collective goes beyond mere attitude and finds plenty of illuminating things to say.

The group takes its name from the true history of Saartjie Baartman, the 19th-century South African woman who was crudely displayed in Europe for pronounced physical features that were deemed hypersexual and exotic. The performance channels Baartman's story and spirit, expressing outrage at her treatment and leaping into moody demonstrations of how the stereotyping persists today.

It's not a plot-driven show -- it's poetry, song, a few sketches, and one particularly riveting dance. Drama is the weak point: for instance, how, in five or so minutes, can you meaningfully suggest four stark types (from suffering kerchiefed matriarch to strutting mini-dressed hip-hop gal) for contemporary black women to play? The dialogue meanders and the idea simply isn't fleshed out.

The poetry and monologues tend to hit faster and harder. One woman tells about the white man who came onto her (generically, saying he'd never been with a black woman), which inspires a long, fascinating riff as she imagines what, precisely, the attractions would have been for him. Even more provocative is the recorded voice-over of thoughts as a nude model poses in an art class; the model contemplates everything from Baartman to a flip insult from her art teacher, and eventually the poses become a fluid, arresting dance.

The troupe never lacks for ideas or understanding, which was emphasized by the unusually engaging post-show discussion Wednesday night. Their expressiveness is still under construction -- apparently three segments were brand-new that evening -- but when it works, it's terrific.

-- Nelson Pressley

By Nelson Pressley  | July 16, 2009; 5:58 PM ET
Categories:  Theater  
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