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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Forceful Zooman and the Sign tugs at apathy

Also see Ed's review of Entrances and Exits

Zooman and the Sign
James Craven and Ahanti Young
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Charles Fuller's emotionally wrenching Zooman and the Sign, grabs you with its drama and powerhouses you into confronting everyday social inertia. It's not a perfect play, but Penumbra Theatre's urgent telling set me to thinking about what shapes the young men who engage in gang warfare and about the fall-out of their violence on ordinary families who lack the means to leave terrorized neighborhoods.

Zooman follows the Tate family after their 12-year-old daughter is killed by a stray bullet. The neighbors are too frightened to tell the police what they witnessed and, when her father puts up an accusatory sign, challenging them to come forward, they react with aggression. The play raises questions of how do non-violent people respond to endemic violence and restrain their fury at their neighbors' and society's complacency; it also begs the question, how can we prevent young men from becoming alienated Zoomans?

Lou Bellamy directs Zooman with dramatic intensity. Deafening gangsta rap surges through the darkened house at play's opening, then a floodlight spots Zooman in the audience, plugged into his music; when he pulls out his ear pieces, the music drops to a whisper, and Zooman spews violence, rage and a sense of twisted pride directly to the audience. Ahanti Young fills Zooman with savagery and an almost appealing child-like simplicity. He hitches his crotch frequently in a gesture that is both nervous and macho, his mood as unpredictable as mercury. He goes from blaming the bitch for catching his bullet to thinking joyfully of his little sister's birthday. He'll slash you as quick as look at you for being elderly, for carrying a pocket book, for being in his way. Yet humanity still glimmers in him. Zooman has grown up in violence. It's what he knows; it's what he does.

In Vernis Fowler's costuming, chunkily-built Zooman wears a sideways-cocked, scarlet baseball cap, a muscle shirt and a heavy chain and padlock around his neck. His jeans hang at half-mast, a preaptic gun shoved down their front, a flick-blade in the pocket.

Zooman's tirades alternate with scenes of Jinny's grieving family. James Craven plays her father, Reuben, a patriarchal man who has lived separately from his family for six months. Craven excels at impotent rage. Reuben is a second-rate boxer turned bus driver who struggles to suppresses his urge to fight. He is determined to find Jinny's killer. He knows his neighbors' habits; it is high summer, and they were out on their stoops and saw who shot Jinny, but distrust of cops and fear of reprisal keep them silent. The once supportive neighborhood is now riven by hopelessness and fear. Fear feeds the tension that leads the neighbors to threaten to burn down the Tates' house if Reuben refuses to remove his sign. The sign attracts media attention. A brick comes through a window the day of Jinny's funeral.

Rachel, Jinny's grieving mother, spends long periods in the first act being emotional and having only brief bursts of dialogue. Fuller has not developed the character as fully as Reuben's, making it a challenge to play. Faye Price makes the most of an underwritten role, and I did feel for this bereft mother.

T. Mychael Rambo plays Emmett, Reuben's surprisingly younger uncle, and Evan Salone connects with the pain in quiet Victor, Jinny's older brother. In this dark play's few glimpses of humor, Austene Van's Ash, Rachel's sensible relative who comes to help, is a delight.

The aisles and front stage serve as the street in Vicki Smith's raised set, an effective design that pulls the audience into the immediacy of the action. In this deeply felt telling, Zooman is a play that speaks with urgency to the gang shootings that have become a part of Twin Cities life and to the recent violence that bleeds into Minneapolis' downtown and Uptown streets.

Talk-back forums with invited panels follow performances April 20, 21, 22 and 27.

Zooman and the Sign April 12 May 7, 2006. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Fridays Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sunday 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Tickets: $32. Call 651-224-3180. www.penumbratheatre.org.


Photo: Ann Marsden


- Elizabeth Weir



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