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Zooman and the Sign

Charles Fuller's play about a neighborhood crime lacks urgency and vitality after nearly three decades.

Evan Parke, Rosalyn Coleman, and Lynda Gravatt
in Zooman and the Sign
(© Gregory Constanzo)
Time hasn't been particularly kind to Charles Fuller's Zooman and the Sign, currently being revived by the Signature Theatre as part of their season devoted to the Negro Ensemble Company. While its theme of community responsibility has not dated, the play seems torn from yesterday's headlines due to nearly three intervening decades in which stories from the 'hood have been mainstreamed. As directed by Stephen McKinley Henderson -- better known for his work as an actor in August Wilson's plays -- too much of the play simply lacks urgency and vitality.

The play's most compelling moments are in its direct-address monologues from the titular character. Zooman (Amari Cheatom) is a dangerously violent and wholly unrepentant young thug who can dance to his boombox with a wide smile on his face one minute, and the next boast about cutting up a random stranger on the subway platform because he didn't like the way the guy walked. Wisely, the playwright doesn't put speeches in Zooman's mouth about the underlying causes of urban despair or of the character's violent pathology; the monologues are written in plain, credible language that feels true to the character. Cheatom, often looking audience members in the eye, brings a burning intensity to Zooman's detachment, subtly depicting a defensiveness beneath the character's aggressive, dangerous surface.

Unfortunately, Zooman's monologues comprise less of the play than the too often uninteresting ones at the scene of his latest crime, a house on a rapidly declining Philadelphia block that belongs to the Tates. We first meet the decent family just hours after their 11-year-old daughter has been killed by a bullet that strayed to their front stoop. Despite a recent estrangement, Rachel (Rosalyn Coleman) and Reuben (Evan Parke) are united in their mourning over the loss of their daughter, until they learn that none of the many neighbors who witnessed the shooting will step forward to talk to the police. Her reaction is to bite her tongue -- at the urging of her visiting cousin (Lynda Gravatt) she makes nice with the neighbors in hopes of coaxing an eyewitness account -- but he is outraged and erects a sign on the stoop to shame their neighbors into talking.

The early scenes in the house, which depict the Tates and some extended family riding out the ups and downs of grief, have not been made convincing in this production by the ensemble. Parke is especially ineffective, indicating with his hands and lacking the needed emotional weight of sorrow; he's far better later on playing rage and indignation than he is early on with grief. Coleman's performance is mostly strong and might have provided the focus for the early family scenes, except that she occasionally also seems to lose touch with the needed undercurrent of despair. As a result, Gravatt's seemingly effortless, fully fleshed-out performance is often the vibrant center of our attention by default.

The family's later scenes, in which a bit of topical speechmaking seeps too obviously into Fuller's dialogue, are greatly energized in this production thanks to the excellent performances by Peter Jay Fernandez and Portia, who each have a short respective scene as a visiting neighbor. But they're not enough to redeem this uneven production.