*British-born African actress Zainab Jah stars in playwright and songwriter Suzan-Lori Parks’ revival of Venus at the Signature Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City in a limited engagement through June 4. Directed by Lear deBessonet, Venus is Parks’ second play of the Signature’s Residency One program, following the twice-extended production of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead. The first production of Venus, directed by George C. Wolfe, premiered in 1996 at The Public Theater in New York City.
Jah was recently seen in Eclipsed, which opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater and on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. Her appearance in Venus marks the first time that she worked with Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.
Set in the 19th century, Venus is the story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, who is best known to history buffs as the “Hottentot Venus.” Born in South Africa, Baartman was convinced to travel to England to become a dancer—an attractive alternative to the life of drudgery she was leading as a domestic. Hoping for a brighter future and clinging to the promise that she would share in the proceeds of her performances, Baartman left Africa with plans to return after securing financial rewards. However, her first appearance in London was in a freak show, a popular form of entertainment at the time.
Billed as an oddity and displayed across England during a two-year period because of her very large buttocks, which hadn’t been seen much outside of her homeland of South Africa, Baartman became well known as the “Venus Hottentot.” Curious Brits came to see Baartman at sold-out venues throughout the country.
In a tragic ending, Baartman died five years later in France. Exhibitors continued to display her remains; a plaster cast of her body along with her skeleton were on display in a museum. She was dissected, and her genitalia was examined by various scientists who were trying to prove that a link existed between her people and apes.
Jah has a pre-show ritual for each of the eight weekly performances of Venus. She practices yoga and does deep pranayama breathing and stretching for fifteen minutes. She also reads the entire script or goes over her monologue before curtain. She also incorporates a poem written by poet Elizabeth Alexander, who has written about Hottentot Venus and has included excerpts from Baartman’s biography.
“Working with Suzan-Lori Parks was wonderful,” says Jah. “She was adamant that she wanted the play to be about Sarah’s life and Sarah’s heart. She wanted to put love on that stage and surround her with love. She wanted her to be able to tell her story, but not coming from a place of vengeance and anger. She [Suzan] was able to get that across because of the lyricism and the poetry of the play. It still doesn’t shelter you from the impending devastation, but you’re taken there on a bed of love because you get to see her vulnerability and her heart.”
She continues, “Suzan was there more or less every day to guide us if we had questions. The same with the director [Lear deBessonet], who was very collaborative. It was one of those highly unusual, highly collaborative processes. She was also open to input and ideas and questions. There were a lot of questions in the rehearsal room and a lot of laughter, of course.”
A Legacy of Black Women Playwrights
Jah has been fortunate to work with three award-winning black playwrights: Parks, Lynn Nottage, and Danai Gurira. Jah worked with Gurira in The Convert and Eclipsed, which received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. She worked with Nottage on Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Intimate Apparel, and Ruined, for which Nottage received her first Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Jah is grateful for the opportunities Nottage, Gurira, and Parks created for her career. Collectively, these women not only provided consistent work for her but, more importantly, their words and works have given a voice and meaning to her and to millions of black women across the Diaspora, who are rarely heard from, or have been silenced. These women now feel their voices have a place in society and popular culture.
As Jah reminisces on the legacy of black women playwrights, she’s reminded of the many significant contributions that Lorraine Hansberry and others have made to American theater and how Parks, Nottage, and Gurira have moved black women playwrights forward with their prolific and extraordinary bodies of work. Along with Mfoniso Udofia, Dominique Morisseau, Katori Hall, Diana Nneka Atuona, these playwrights are giving women of color a permanent voice in the global theater community. Their collective contributions have given Jah the confidence and inspiration to write and develop a few projects. “Danai constantly tells me, ‘You have stories to tell. We want to hear your stories. The world wants to hear them,’” says Jah.
Casting Black Brits Versus Black Americans
As the global village of actors, playwrights, screenwriters, and directors continues to grow exponentially, the debate about black British and African American actors vying for the same roles in Hollywood and theater communities across the United States has many concerned.
Jah understands the frustration of African American actors, but also feels that the issue was reversed a few years ago, where black American actors were readily given more opportunities than British actors. “Personally, that has not been my experience,” Jah says of her roles. “I mainly play Africans and Brits. I rarely play an American, which is really interesting.” Currently, Jah appears on the sixth season of Showtime’s Homeland in the recurring role of Aby Bah, a West African mother whose son is suspected of working with a terrorist cell.
According to Jah, there are many different sides to this debate. She says that Americans have an attraction to British actors though she’s not sure why. She’s also heard opposing opinions on whether American directors feel the British actors are trained better. But she knows that is not entirely true. “American actors are incredibly well-trained,” she says. “I worked with Lupita [Nyong’o], who went to Yale, and Danai [Gurira] who trained at NYU [New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts] and Danielle [Brooks] who went to Juilliard.”
Her Path to the Stage
Jah’s road to acting is unorthodox and non-traditional. At 17, she started her career as a dancer and trained with a modern dance conservatory. When she decided she wanted to transition to expressing herself through words as opposed to movement she auditioned for various theater productions. Her stage training came from working with American actors. “I’ve trained with such amazing American actors. I learned everything from them,” she says. “I’ve been on stage with people like Pascale Armand. I credit my training to them, American actors.”
Fifteen years ago, Jah moved from London to New York City, where she got her first role at the Classical Theater of Harlem in a production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, which starred André De Shields, John Douglas Thompson, and Jerome Preston Bates, among others. While most of Jah’s credits have been on the stage, she is looking forward to landing film and television roles and developing her various writing projects. Some of her Off-Broadway and regional theater credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, In Darfur, Children Of Herakles, and the title role in Hamlet, which Jah believes makes her the first black female Hamlet in America.
Memories of her childhood in Africa also inspire her. Jah says the ten years she spent growing up in Sierra Leone were magical. At six months old, baby Zainab went to live with her grandmother, while her parents attended medical school in London. Raised in an upper-middle class environment, she lived on a large estate where family members would get married and bring their spouses to live. Jah recalls a very happy, kinetic childhood, surrounded by a large family, gorgeous landscapes, and beautiful beaches.
It was during this time that Jah was introduced to the performing arts through her West African grandmother, who had a children’s theater company, Christ’s Little Band, which was established through her local church. Initially, her grandmother included her in the theater group to keep an eye on her. Jah enjoyed the theater group but was more interested in climbing mango trees.
An impressionable child, Jah was anointed with the gift of language; she could also memorize pages of text, with nearly perfect enunciation of each word. She credits her grandmother for her love of reading and literature. “I read everything,” says Jah. “I had a voracious appetite for reading as a child. I read the Bible, the Koran, the cereal boxes, the milk cans. She instilled my love of words, music, and the arts.”
Jah recalls that her grandmother was an extraordinarily talented piano player with plans to go to Marce, France, to study music and become a concert pianist. Like many women of that time, her plans were derailed when she met Jah’s grandfather, fell in love, married, and become a teacher.
Jah was ten years old when her parents sent for her. Though she loved her grandmother and Sierra Leone dearly, she looked forward to going to London to be with her parents, whom she had never met. “It’s the typical immigrant story,” says Jah of her parents. “They get to England, and then they go to medical school, and before you know it their life is going on and the years are going by. I had only read about England. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. So I got there, and it was a culture shock, to say the least. I was horribly disappointed when I realized snow was not in fact made from sugar but ice.”
Family, Faith, and Giving Back
Jah considers herself as an extremely optimistic person. She surrounds herself with family, friends, and positive people, a practice that also keeps her centered and grounded. She doesn’t tolerate cynicism and negativity in her life. Jah counts her grandmother, now deceased, as the biggest inspiration in her life. Jah says she feels her grandmother spirit and presence daily.
An exercise fanatic, in between her demanding work schedule, Jah spends time practicing yoga; and she runs between 15 to 20 miles a week. Jah also spends her free time planning meals and planning her next vacation. She honors her Sierra Leonean heritage preparing some of her favorite recipes. Her mother’s background is Krio, and her father’s is Fula and Mende. Some of her favorite West African dishes include egusi stew, cassava leaf stew, potato leaf stew, peanut stew, and fufu.
During the 2016 Christmas holiday season, Jah and her husband, Timothy Naylor, along with her sister, Dr. Hawanatu Jah, an obstetrician and gynecologist, joined their father, Dr. Sheikh U.M Jah, on a medical mission in Sierra Leone. The family returned to their homeland for the thirtieth anniversary of the Pauper’s Kitchen and Clinic, a wellness center her father founded in his home village of Pujehun and the village of Bo.
Founded in 1987, the Pauper’s Kitchen and Clinic provides a variety of free healthcare and wellness services to the homeless, the poor, and children orphaned by war. There is also an educational component to the program, where the organization is raising funds to provide scholarships, school equipment, school fees, and monies to purchase uniforms for the students. Dr. Jah travels between Sierra Leone and London to manage several of his businesses and properties.
In the near future, Jah and her sister will take over the day-to-day operation of the organization. “The Pauper’s Kitchen and Clinic is very special to me for many reasons,” she says. “The role of Maima, which I played in Eclipsed, is close to my heart. One of the villages my dad is from, Pujehun, is very close to Liberia. You could walk to Liberia from my dad’s village. There are a lot of people there with the name of my character in Eclipsed. I have cousins and relatives named Maima, too.”
Jah says that one of the most valuable lessons she learned from her parents are the acts of forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. She says her parents are the most open-hearted and generous people that she knows. It is the talented actress’ hope that she has inherited their godly character traits.
Sharing Her Stories
While in Sierra Leone, Jah and her husband, produced a short documentary, A Christmas Mission. They are raising money to develop the short into a full-length documentary.
It wasn’t the first time they collaborated on a screen project. In 2016, the husband-and-wife team produced a film short, Buried Deep, filmed during a New York City blizzard. Naylor posted a talent and crew call on Facebook to shoot the next day and he received several positive responses. All the crew members donated their time, and many traveled from the Bronx and other places at five o’clock in the morning to work on the film. Buried Deep was shot in one day and was recently selected for the Palm Springs Film Festival. The film short is also being considered for other festivals.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to tell stories for some people who otherwise would not have a voice,” Jah says. “I’ve been trusted with that and find that inspiring. It feeds my soul.”
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She is a contributor to BlackEnterprise.com, Black Enterprise’s BE Pulse, Huffington Post, EURWEB.com, and Medium.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business.