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A good stage can carry a play to success; a great one can elevate it to dizzying new heights. For Charles Fuller’s Zooman and the Sign—Theatre in the X’s 10th-anniversary production, running through Sunday, August 20—it’s hard to imagine a better stage than Malcolm X Park: more like your neighbor’s backyard or a block-party barbecue than any given outdoor venue. The park is a community space, first and foremost, alive with the heat and buzz of summer. It makes it all that much more devastating to watch the shooting of a young Black girl on her front porch as if it had happened right next door.
Set in Philadelphia in 1979, the play chronicles the aftermath of the death of 12-year-old Jinny Tate (London DeShields) at the hands of Zooman (Bryce Zenon), a volatile youth who terrorizes his community. When no one on the Tates’ block will admit to witnessing the murder, Jinny’s outraged father Reuben (Walter DeShields) hangs a sign from their house, lambasting his neighbors for their complicity in letting Jinny’s killer walk free.
Though first performed 43 years ago, Zooman’s story is all too resonant, feeling as though it could have been pulled from the headlines of any given Inquirer circa 2023. The accusations of the sign seem to spill from the stage and implicate the entire audience—rippling through the park as though ours was the silent community—in a production that amounts to Philly theater at its timeliest and most audacious.
A revelatory cast
The Tate family beautifully conveys the immensity of this theme in a deeply felt portrait of grief and its collateral disruption. Walter astounds as Jinny’s father, a SEPTA bus driver in familiar garb, striking such a weighted figure that he appears as though he could collapse at any instant. He wrestles with the need to avenge his daughter’s death, to do right by her name, but also to temper his more brutal instincts as he is still a husband, still a father.
LaNeshe Miller-White is similarly revelatory as Jinny’s mother Rachel. At times, she wields the severity of the bereaved mother as a white-hot iron; at others, sorrow seems to pour suddenly forth from her, a vessel that cannot contain that which it has been tasked to hold. Each moment between her and Reuben teeters as if on the edge of a knife, conversations that seem equally likely to bring them closer together or forever sunder them apart.
Their son Victor (a sensitive Jeffery Scott) and Reuben’s brother Emmett (T.C. Storm Caldwell, a fiery delight) round out the Tate family with their own heartrending depictions of grief. Victor, frustrated at his inability to express his loss, plans to obtain a gun to protect his family, while Uncle Emmett laments the state of their world and yearns for a clean vengeance that eludes him at every step. Theirs is a burden to rival Atlas’s, and they shoulder it masterfully.
These family episodes alternate with vignettes of Zooman, portrayed by Zenon with white-knuckle energy, an intermittent firecracker that could ignite at any moment. He explains himself as a product of his society in an increasingly volatile series of monologues, an uneasy justification with which even he seems ill at ease. Through it all, the play refuses to either exculpate him as a misunderstood figure or to condemn him fully, and we are left with no easy answers.
Through it all, Jinny returns at key moments in a haunting turn by London, a silent ghost adrift about the stage. There is a moment where Reuben holds his hand to her, and she orbits just beyond his reach as though we are watching her slip from memory’s grasp.
Deft, crackling, and real
That the play can successfully navigate such a density of ideas and characters is a testament to Ozzie Jones’s direction and Charles Fuller’s script, which deftly balances the Tates’ sorrow with the larger community response to Reuben’s sign. Before James Ijames won the Pulitzer for Fat Ham, Fuller was the sole Philadelphia playwright to hold that honor (for A Soldier’s Play), and you can sense exactly why in every line. His dialogue crackles with an energy that would be irreplicable anywhere else.
After all, in a very real way, this did happen here. This was Philadelphia’s not-too-distant past, and it’s hard to say exactly how far we’ve come. When Jinny’s mother finds her daughter’s body, she stumbles through the audience, a broken woman, pleading for someone, anyone, to call the police. In this blurring between the seats and the stage, the audience is uncertain whether to speak, unable to look away. We have borne witness to tragedy, but it has also borne witness to us.
What, When, Where
Zooman and the Sign. By Charles Fuller, directed by Ozzie Jones. Free. Through August 20, 2023, at Malcolm X Park, 5100 Pine Street, Philadelphia. (484) 326-2596 or theatreinthex.com.
This is an outdoor performance in Malcolm X Park. The audience is encouraged to BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair).
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