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Violence scars a scared urban community in ‘Zooman’

Jennifer Farrar

NEW YORK — A randomly violent, sociopathic teenage killer; the angry and grieving family of one of his young victims; and a black community either too frightened or too numbed into apathy by repeated gang violence to speak out and identify the killers.

This volatile mixture can be found in Charles Fuller’s powerful, Obie-winning drama “Zooman and the Sign,” now being revived by off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company.

When the play premiered in 1979, urban violence was widespread. Fuller’s setting of Philadelphia had been characterized in the media as “the youth-gang capital of America.” While community apathy seems a thing of the past now, the amoral, murderous youth portrayed in the play are, unfortunately, recognizable contemporary figures.

Director Stephen McKinley Henderson has assembled a strong cast for this final production in Signature’s 2008-2009 season, celebrating the Negro Ensemble Company. The cast gives an emotional portrayal of the effect on ordinary people of inner-city violence.

Amari Cheatom is alarmingly credible as Zooman, an unrepentant teenage gang leader, who opens the play with a disturbingly vicious monologue. Defending himself to the audience with barking laughter and nonstop cursing, Cheatom glares contemptuously while snarling about the stupidity of his victims and the police.

Throughout the play, Zooman’s diatribes are juxtaposed with the working-class Tate family, shown in their tidy, respectable living room. Evan Parke gives a restrained performance as Reuben Tate, the grieving father of 12-year-old Jinny, who was shot and killed by Zooman, possibly by accident, while playing on the front steps of her home.

Rosalyn Coleman is touching as Jinny’s mother, Rachel, consumed with guilt over having sent Jinny outside to play, and disgusted with her neighbors of some 15 years. “This neighborhood is dead,” she angrily observes.

Jinny’s teenage brother, Victor, played by Jamal Mallory-McCree, is favoring his dark side and seeking revenge against Zooman, as is Reuben’s Uncle Emmett (Ron Canada), visiting from New York to support the family. Lynda Gravatt provides a warm, sorrowful presence as Rachel’s Aunt Ash from Boston, who tries to calm the family and restore order.

Reuben, a former boxer turned city bus driver, just wants the neighbors to come forward and identify the killers so the police can catch them. After many futile attempts to get neighbors to speak out, he puts up a sign on his front porch to shame them into doing so.

However, the sign, which reads, “The killers of our daughter Jinny are free on the streets because our neighbors will not identify them,” has the opposite effect, galvanizing many in the community against the Tates. Angry neighbors, rather than feeling shamed into seeking justice against the killers, claim the sign makes them — and all black people — look bad.

Fuller’s play is still shocking for the parallels drawn between the supposedly decent, working-class neighbors and the wanton criminality of young gang members. Both groups feel a sense of futility about trying to change the way things are.

“Zooman and the Sign,” running through April 26, 2009, at the Signature’s Peter Norton Space, is still a timely reminder of the dangers of becoming desensitized to violence.

(Associated Press)