Charles Fuller won a 1982 Pulitzer for “A Soldier’s Play,” but his 1980 domestic drama, “Zooman and the Sign,” is best considered grist for the mill. The Signature Theater has retained some interesting actors for its revival — Rosalyn Coleman is particularly good as a bereaved mother — but thesp-turned-helmer Stephen McKinley Henderson has added to the play’s pacing problems with some deeply confused direction. In initial production and its previous revivals (in 1983 and 1994), the play was declared incendiary, if problematic and occasionally flat. Now, unfortunately, it’s problematic, flat and no longer unique.
Fuller wrote about the middle-class black experience at a time when an embarrassingly large percentage of white America was just starting to realize the black middle-class existed at all. His play’s domestic setting, its troubled-but-not-too-troubled family atmosphere, and its concerns with community and appearance must have seemed both homey and shocking to crowds in 1980. Here, after all, are Rachel and Reuben Tate (Coleman and Evan Parke, respectively): nice-seeming suburbanites who minded their own business and then saw their daughter blasted out of her short life by a worthless thug.
Then there’s the thug. Zooman (a very good Amari Cheatom in this staging) initially presents himself as callous and amoral, but he feels guilty about the killing and wishes he didn’t. At the same time, Fuller suggests he’s just a particularly nasty symptom of the poverty and hopelessness plaguing young African-Americans. So he’s not worthless at all, merely lost and alone, as are most of the characters. That same hopelessness scares the Tates’ neighbors (who, unlike Zooman, have something to lose) into denying any knowledge of the murder.
The problem, then as now, is that there isn’t really a play to fit around this worthy stand against injustice, internecine and otherwise. When in the first act the dead girl’s father puts up a sign proclaiming his neighbors’ complicity in the murder, you’d be forgiven for thinking Fuller has made his point and should go home. The flaw is aggravated by the fact that a much better play about the same problems — Tracey Scott Wilson’s Birmingham epic “The Good Negro” — just premiered at the Public.
Unlike Wilson’s play, “Zooman” wasn’t written as a period piece, but must be played as one in order to make sense (boom boxes are gone; no longer do we dread the vulgarity “jive mothafucka”). This would be fine if a new staging retained some of the urgency that Fuller (and reviewers) clearly felt when the play premiered. But the 29-year remove makes the drama’s events feel irretrievably further away. It’s not so much that we don’t care about the characters’ problems, but that there’s now plenty of socially-aware contempo art on the topic, some of it very good, like HBO’s “The Wire.”
It’s a little painful to note that director Henderson, whose own acting work is so consistently excellent, doesn’t quite know what to do with his performers. The play is filled with glaring, uncomfortable moments in which the actors appear to be ignoring their instincts.
The engaging Ron Canada plays Reuben’s brother Emmett with a minimum of these gaffes; Lynda Gravatt (as Rachel’s cousin) seems not only to know what she’s doing but to be having fun; and Coleman, in a part originated by Mary Alice, is tragic and beautiful despite Katherine Roth’s unflattering costumes.
Everybody appears to be trying hard to make Fuller’s valuable point, and ultimately, “Zooman” is a work of profoundly good intentions. It just isn’t much in the way of theater.