‘Zooman & the Sign’ profoundly complelling

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St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre Company stages Pulitzer Prize winning author Charles Fuller’s classic Zooman and the Sign (April 14 – May 7), a drama depicting all too authentic circumstances that plague America’s street life in general and the Twin Cities in particular, savaging families and individuals whose very existence is hostage to inhumanity. It’s a saga wherein gangland violence murders a child, specifically set in a Black neighborhood, universal in that communities of all colors, including White, are no strangers to such tragedy.

Zooman and the Sign affords a profoundly compelling premise. In the immediate aftermath of their daughter’s slaying, the Tate family—principally the patriarch Reuben—tries to find the killer. A once cohesive community is now so besieged by fear that compassion as well as outrage is safest expressed behind closed doors. No one dares to say who shot the Tates’ little girl, which builds to the blood-roiling point of conflict—will Reuben’s tortuous search, his agonized plea, move the community to self-salvation, or will monstrous evil continue running everyone’s lives?

You can’t find fare more immediately relevant to urban St. Paul, Minneapolis and a lot of other cities. Not with radar, bloodhounds and a flashlight. Reflecting headlines, bearing witness to ruined lives, this is about addressing a community-destroying epidemic the likes of which we haven’t seen since the horror of Al Capone, John Dillinger, et al. And Zooman comes from the pen of one of the first African American dramatists to win a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer Prize was for Fuller’s tour de force tragedy, A Soldier’s Story. And, like A Soldier’s Story, the script is rich with humanity. Just as A Soldier’s Story looks squarely at the fact that victimizers are themselves unwitting victims, Zooman and the Sign shows us that the young, murdering thug Zooman is dying as human being. The genius of Fuller transcends stock two-dimensional depictions of good and bad in order to confront true-life circumstance.

During the run at Penumbra, there also is the benefit of the well-lauded Penumbra Symposia series on April 19th at Macalester University, and the Penumbra Talk Back, an informal and intimate post-show discussion exploring the play, its theme and interpretation. There are seven of these (see the Penumbra Web site for dates and times: www.penumbratheatre.org). If you’ve skipped the symposia and feedback sessions in the past, this time around you probably want to make sure you get there, put in your two cents and listen to what others have to say. After all, it is our community on the line.

It is quite fitting, by the way, that company founder-artistic director Lou Bellamy, who directs Zooman and the Sign, has called on community fixtures for his cast. In the spirit of the script, it does the heart good to see fondly revered luminaries connecting with us from the Penumbra stage. Led by premiere craftsman Jim Craven, the ensemble includes Faye Price (any time this gifted veteran steps from behind her desk as Pillsbury House Theatre’s principal artistic director, you owe it to yourself to be there), Benny Cannon, Austene Van, T. Mychael Rambo and Ahanti Young, along with Evan Salone, Tisch Jones and David Smith.

This is an opportunity to appreciate one of Black America’s most conscientious voices in Charles Fuller, who won the Obie Award for Zooman and the Sign. We don’t have two-time Pulitzer winner, Penumbra company member and life witness August Wilson anymore. But we sure have Charles Fuller. And we need to be damned glad of it.

Ultimately, we are not talking just a theatre experience (though there is, of course, nothing wrong with art for art’s sake). This is a clarion call to honor community and confront our accountability. No one of conscience dares forgo this invaluable opportunity.