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Zooman and the Sign

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Zooman and the Sign
Amari Cheatom
Photo by Gregory Constanzo.

It takes less time than you might think for a play to go from hopelessly harsh to hermetically hardboiled. Charles Fullerís Zooman and the Sign needed only 28 years - at least judging by the restless new production the Signature Theatre Company is giving it at Peter Norton Space.

This final outing in Signatureís season-long tribute to the Negro Ensemble Company is weaker than the previous two, The First Breeze of Summer and Home, because those involved with it seem to trust it least. Director Stephen McKinley Henderson has assembled the playís messy collage of pieces with a slapdash nonchalance that not only illuminates nothing new about the unforgiving text, but obscures what value it might once have contained.

When the play premiered Off-Broadway in 1980, itís likely that its raw depiction of street violence and the families it destroys carried a pungency that years of overexposure prevents today. Itís almost a certainty that the original cast could elicit from their characters the heat and horror of a misunderstood young monster (the Zooman of the title) who remorselessly kills a 12-year-old girl and the agony of the parents and brother she leaves behind. And doubtlessly the solution that the girlís father, Reuben Tate, devised for battling the apathy of his neighbors - hanging a sign above his house that implicates them in his daughterís death - angered some and inspirited others but left few unchallenged.

Zooman and the Sign is less supple of scope than Fullerís best-known work, A Soldierís Play, but it possesses a strength and a point of view that merely need honest and detailed performances to percolate. It does not get them this time around.

This is especially true in the case of Rosalyn Coleman, who is distractingly overwrought and overextended as the girlís mother, Rachel. Some theatrical pyrotechnics are expected from any mother whose youngest child was just brutally murdered, but Colemanís paint-peeling grief and rage play as more conscious and strategic than they do genuine. Her deepest loss and her most fervent protectiveness are invariably more methodical than they are moving.

Evan Parke starts off giving Reuben the proper detachedness: Living apart from his family as the play begins (he cheated on Rachel six months ago), he canít and shouldnít have an immediately intimate connection with them. But a key point of Fullerís play is showing how Reubenís daughterís tragedy makes a man (and a family man) out of Reuben, and Parke never takes all-consuming charge when he must begin his one-man crusade against the next-door witnesses who saw something but insist they did not.

Zooman and the Sign
Evan Parke, Rosalyn Coleman, and Lynda Gravatt.
Photo by Gregory Constanzo.

Ron Canada, Jamal Mallory-McCree, and W. Trť Davis do acceptable work as Reubenís uncle Emmett, his son Victor, and Victorís friend Russell, but they need stronger-burning coals to stoke if theyíre to have much impact outside their isolated blast zones. Peter Jay Fernandez, as the only openly friendly neighbor, and Portia, as the most overtly hostile one we meet, have less stage time and fewer opportunities to state their cases, but do their best with what they have. (The play runs only one hour and 40 minutes with intermission, but still feels scattered and overstuffed.)

The largest shred of unaffectedness is found in the performance of Lynda Gravatt as Rachelís take-charge cousin, Ash. Thereís a bit of the typical sassy-big-woman vibe about her, but that emanates from a confidence you donít see from anyone else onstage. Gravatt never struggles for words, strains for tears, or stumbles about feelings as she situates Ash in this difficult world. This well-tooled woman should have no place here, but Gravatt makes her a natural inhabitant by giving a potentially stand-by stereotype the blood of a fighter.

Amari Cheatom needed to do something similar with his portrayal of the title character, but has just taken the other actorsí tack of exsanguinating clichťs. Zooman isnít easy to play, because he canít achieve his full narrative purpose until literally the last seconds of the show, and until then he must be both repellant and endearing, classy and disgusting at the same time. Cheatom never finds the proper balance, and as a result looks less like a bad kid trying to show his inner goodness than he does an honor student with a switchblade comb pretending in front of a mirror to be the baddest kid in town.

His problem is the overall problem with this production: We need to believe, but we canít, that everyone is living on the boundaries of lawlessness if weíre to accept that a single act of passive-aggressive rebellion could disrupt the entire community. Henderson has let everything become too slick and convenient, a dangerous oversight when the action hinges on a thick layer of grit coating everything. Some of the playís original power occasionally bleeds through, if only by accident. But most of the time with this Zooman and the Sign, the sign just reads ďStop.Ē

Zooman and the Sign
Through April 26
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenues
Tickets: Signature Theatre