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Zooman and the Sign

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

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 Fuller's 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 Signature's 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 play's 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, it's likely that its raw depiction of street violence and the families it destroys carried a pungency that years of overexposure prevents today. It's 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 girl's father, Reuben Tate, devised for battling the apathy of his neighbors - hanging a sign above his house that implicates them in his daughter's death - angered some and inspirited others but left few unchallenged.

Zooman and the Sign is less supple of scope than Fuller's best-known work, A Soldier's 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 girl's mother, Rachel. Some theatrical pyrotechnics are expected from any mother whose youngest child was just brutally murdered, but Coleman's 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 can't and shouldn't have an immediately intimate connection with them. But a key point of Fuller's play is showing how Reuben's daughter's 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.

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

Ron Canada, Jamal Mallory-McCree, and W. Tré Davis do acceptable work as Reuben's uncle Emmett, his son Victor, and Victor's friend Russell, but they need stronger-burning coals to stoke if they're 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 Rachel's take-charge cousin, Ash. There's a bit of the typical sassy-big-woman vibe about her, but that emanates from a confidence you don't 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 actors' tack of exsanguinating clichés. Zooman isn't easy to play, because he can't 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 can't, that everyone is living on the boundaries of lawlessness if we're 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 play's original power occasionally bleeds through, if only by accident. But most of the time with this Zooman and the Sign, the sign just reads "Stop."

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

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