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A CurtainUp Review
Zooman and the Sign
What am I doing here now? I just killed somebody. A little girl, I think.—— Zooman
Amari Cheatom as Zooman
Signature Theatre Company's third play in a season devoted to works from the Negro Ensemble Company's collective of writers is Charles Fuller's Zooman and the Sign. Fuller, a powerful commentator on the black American experience, is best known for A Soldier's Play which earned him the 1982 Pulitzer Prize and an Edgar Award after he turned it into a screenplay re-titled A Soldier's Story.

The Obie Award-winning Zooman and the Sign, written two years before A Soldier's Pay, may have been the first indication that Fuller was a playwright who deserved a serious theatergoer's attention. It examines the problems that plague the black community and the strengths that allow it to survive and grow. Under Stephen McKinley Henderson's gripping direction it does this with compassion, dignity and insight.

Zooman. . . contrasts two distinct but intersecting worlds. One is the place where Zooman (the extraordinary Amari Cheatom) prowls the streets, mugging old ladies and cutting people who get in his way. The other is where the members of the Tate family, hard-working, decent people with blue collar jobs, try to make a life for themselves in a neighborhood that is overwhelmed by violence and distrust. When 12-year-old Jinny Tate is murdered the two worlds collide.

The marriage of Rachel (Rosalyn Coleman) and Emmett Tate (Ron Canada) is disintegrating. But when their daughter, Jinny, is killed by Zooman in a random act of violence, they come together again in their grief. Rachel only wants to mourn, but Emmett wants the killer brought to justice, as does the Tate's son, Victor (Jamal Mallory McCree) who gets a gun from a friend. When not one of the Tate's neighbors is willing to work with the distrusted, disliked police, even though many people were on their porches when the crime occurred, Emmett hangs up a sign proclaiming that his daughter's killer is at large because his neighbors will not help.

A few of the neighbors remain friendly and even try to be of assistance. Donald Jackson (Peter Jay Fernandez) arrives with food and sympathy. Grace Georges (Portia), whose daughter had been Jinny's friend, tries to convince Emmett to take down the sign but ends up sounding more self-serving than concerned. Much of the community is up in arms over Emmett's way of reminding his neighbors of certain facts they would like to ignore. No one wants dirty laundry aired in public, and Emmett's sign seems to tell the whole world that this neighborhood is dangerous and filled with cowardly people.

In their time of grieving, the Tates are aided by family — Emmett's uncle Reuben (Evan Parke) and Rachel's cousin Ash (Lynda Gravatt). These older family members make ironic and pointed observations on the changes that have come over the black community in the past few years. Ash is particularly vocal when she complains that food stamps are destroying the black community because they allow people to stay at home, watch television and get fat on junk food. " When the Negroes were hungry we treated each other better. . .We had to depend on each other," she laments. Gravatt's sassy, no-nonsense portrayal of this kindhearted woman who dedicates herself to supplying the household with potato salad gives the play a much needed touch of humor and, at the same time, provides a larger context for the drama.

Coleman's Rachel could melt the heart of Jack the Ripper. Yet she is never over the top and never lets her suffering become a caricature of grief. But the cement that holds this play together is the riveting performance of Ameri Cheatom, a recent Juilliard graduate who first learned about Zooman and the Sign while he was a student at a performing arts high school in Atlanta. In a feat of acting wizardry he snarls, sneers and brags, and somehow remains wounded and vulnerable.

Zooman and the Sign takes place in Philadelphia in early August 1979. Though the country has changed in many ways since then, in many ways it hasn't. Lost sociopathic souls like Zooman still haunt certain neighborhoods and prey on the innocent. Zooman and the Sign offers no solutions to the endless cycle of problems that destroy young lives. But it certainly provides a powerfully revealing glimpse into a part of American life most would like to forget.

Zooman and the Sign
By Charles Fuller
Directed by Stephen McKinley Henderson
Cast: Amarai Cheatom (Zooman), Rosalyn Coleman (Rachel Tate), Ron Canada (Emmett Tate), Evan Parke (Reuben Tate), Jamal Mallory-McCree (Victor Tate), W. Tre Davis (Russell Adams), Peter Jay Fernandez (Donald Jackson), Lynda Gravatt (Ash Boswell), Portia (Grace Georges)
Set Design: Shaun Motley
Costume Design: Katherine Roth
Lighting Design: Matthew Frey
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with one intermission
Signature Theater, 555 West 42nd Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues) or call (212) 244-PLAY (7529)
From 3/03/09; opening 3/24/09 closing 4/26/09
Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday - Saturday at 8pm. Matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2pm Added shows Wed March 18 at 2pm
Tickets: $20
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 23, 2009
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