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Review of "Zooman & The Sign"

Every time the lights come up on Zooman, a menacing teenager dressed in baggy jeans, a tight tank-top and a sleeveless gray hoodie, the temperature in TheaterLoft seems to drop about 20 degrees."I woke up this morning and I felt like killing someone," he says, a momentary glint of something pure and unhinged in his eyes. "So what?""So what?" -- that eternal expression of indifference -- is the question at the heart of "Zooman and the Sign," a powerful 1980 play by Charles Fuller that opened Saturday night in TheatreLoft in a co-production of Alemaedae Theatre Productions, Ujima Theatre and Xavier Films.The play takes a hard look at violence in urban black communities through the experience of Rachel and Reuben Tate (Shanntina Moore and Barry Williams Jr.), whose 12-year-old daughter Jinny was killed by a stray bullet from Zooman's gun -- a bullet he intended for someone else. In an effort to solve the crime, Reuben posts a controversial sign asking tight-lipped neighbors on his block in a rough section of Philadelphia to come forward to help identify the killers.Fuller's play, in addition to serving as a compelling portrait of one family's grief, attempts to explore why, when violence occurs in poor black neighborhoods, so many people retreat from their porches, close their doors and shut their mouths.The play, which says some potentially controversial things about the way black communities have evolved (or not) since Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, has a chilling and immediate local relevance.It is being produced in part to raise awareness about the death of 15-year-old Dominique Maye, who was killed last September by a stray bullet as she sat in her aunt's front room doing homework. Kevin J. Davis, a 24-year-old gang member who was recently charged with her slaying, reportedly intended to kill someone else. Dominique, like Jinny, was collateral damage in the botched vendetta of a cold-blooded killer.This production, directed by Willie Judson, is powered mostly by the simmering intensity of Peter Johnson, who plays Zooman with a spine-chilling mix of menace and manufactured confidence, so clearly born of insecurity. It is as much because of Johnson's performance as Fuller's dialogue that we see Zooman both as a conduit for certain ugly truths about urban violence and as a cold-hearted product of that violence himself.As Reuben and Rachel, Williams and Moore make a compelling team, while Beverly Y. Crowell gives an impeccable comic performance as Ash, a cousin. Throughout the show, however, there is a misguided tendency in some roles to equate shouting with acting. Johnson demonstrates that dynamic control can be more effective than the loudest scream, and that's something the rest of the cast could take heed of.Fuller's play also raises a good many issues -- where, for instance, does the neighborhood residents' hesitance to speak come from, aside from a historic unease with the police? -- without really exploring them in much depth. It provides grist for the mill but doesn't do much milling, which places the play firmly in the crowded second tier of socially conscious dramas.That the play ends in a way that is hardly representative of reality in most crime-ridden urban neighborhoods might be considered a fault. But you could view it as a sad sort of justice -- something communities from Fuller's Philadelphia to Buffalo's East Side could use. e-mail: ***"Zooman and the Sign" 3 stars (out of 4)

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