Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Zooman and the Sign


By Charles Fuller, Directed by Stephen McKinley Henderson. At The Signature Theater. (CLOSED)

The Signature closes out its season-long exploration of the Negro Ensemble Company with Charles Fuller's award-winning drama about urban violence. The critics are at best respectful (even somewhat glowing) and at worst dismissive of either the script, the production or both. Even those who like the play feel that it's dated both in form and content in the age of The Wire, while critics are split on the production itself. Boosters feel that Stephen McKinley Henderson and his cast elevate the material with grace and nuance while haters (particularly Talking Broadway's Matthew Murray) think the whole thing is a big, deflated mess.

CurtainUp B+
(Paulanne Simmons) Zooman and the Sign takes place in Philadelphia in early August 1979. Though the country has changed in many ways since then, in many ways it hasn't. Lost sociopathic souls like Zooman still haunt certain neighborhoods and prey on the innocent. Zooman and the Sign offers no solutions to the endless cycle of problems that destroy young lives. But it certainly provides a powerfully revealing glimpse into a part of American life most would like to forget.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) The cast gives an emotional portrayal of the effect on ordinary people of inner-city violence... Fuller's play is still shocking for the parallels drawn between the supposedly decent, working-class neighbors and the wanton criminality of young gang members. Both groups feel a sense of futility about trying to change the way things are.

NY Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Fuller's play is powerfully plain-spoken, if less than subtle. The challenge here is to maintain the right pitch, and under the direction of Stephen McKinley Henderson the nine actors in the cast up to the task. As Jinny's brother, Jamal Mallory-McCree's reserved performance stands out, while Lynda Gravatt adds welcomes flashes of humor as a no-nonsense family friend. Zooman and the Sign marks a worthwhile final entry in the Signature's season of works from the Negro Ensemble Company.

American Theater Web B
(Andry Propst) As Fuller couples these thematic elements of the play with the nearly overwhelming grief that plagues the family which already was in crisis because of Reuben's philandering, it's nearly impossible to not be touched by the play. Concurrently, there's a curious sense of datedness to "Zooman," which, though once crushingly immediate, has become less intensely timely as inner city violence has diminished. Nevertheless, the production, directed solidly by Stephen McKinley Henderson, features an array of splendidly observed performances, particularly from the actresses.

NYPost B-
(Frank Scheck) Zooman lacks the richness and depth of Fuller's A Soldier's Play, which followed a year later. But it still packs a punch. Stephen McKinley Henderson's staging could have been more atmospheric, but he's elicited fine performances from his ensemble.

Backstage B-
(Erik Haagensen) Under Stephen McKinley Henderson's fluid and sensitive direction, the cast delivers uniformly fine performances. Amari Cheatom creates an impressive Zooman, never once sacrificing the character's humanity in the pursuit of making him scary. Evan Parke commands the stage as Reuben, and Rosalyn Coleman negotiates Rachel's whirlwind of shifting emotions effortlessly. Ron Canada's Uncle Emmett is gruffly charming, and Lynda Gravatt is a force to be reckoned with as cousin Ash, particularly in her righteous pursuit of potato salad. Jamal Mallory-McCree as Victor makes his silences count and handles his one monologue beautifully.... There is much to admire in Zooman and the Sign, in particular an ending that manages to be emotionally complex and affecting despite the play's shortcomings. Unfortunately, it just makes you wonder how much more powerful that ending would be if what preceded it were better developed.

NYTimes C+
(Charles Isherwood) With his 1980 play Zooman, Mr. Fuller, whose best-known work is the taut military drama A Soldier’s Play, was addressing the scourge of urban violence that remains an intractable problem in American cities like Philadelphia, where this story is set in 1979. His approach is thoughtful and sincere, his understanding of the grim complexities of the situation admirable. But the play never quite disguises its roots as a theatrical response to a social problem.

Time Out New York C
(David Cote) Nearly 30 years later, does Zooman still scare us silly? Not enough, and that’s part of the problem with this earnestly restrained revival, the Signature Theatre Company’s final offering in its season devoted to works of the Negro Ensemble Company. Stephen McKinley Henderson stages it with care and lets the tension gradually accrue, but you wish he had used more shock tactics: louder music, perhaps, or a more in-your-face attitude. As psychotic street thug Zooman, Amari Cheatom cuts an appropriately cold-blooded figure, but it’s too easy to see the frightened teen under the streetwise bluff.

TheaterMania C-
(Patrick Lee) Time hasn't been particularly kind to Charles Fuller's Zooman and the Sign, currently being revived by the Signature Theatre as part of their season devoted to the Negro Ensemble Company. While its theme of community responsibility has not dated, the play seems torn from yesterday's headlines due to nearly three intervening decades in which stories from the 'hood have been mainstreamed. As directed by Stephen McKinley Henderson -- better known for his work as an actor in August Wilson's plays -- too much of the play simply lacks urgency and vitality.

Variety D
(Sam Thielman) 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.

TalkinBroadway F+
(Matthew Murray) 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.

CU B+ 11; AP B+ 11; NYDN B+ 11; ATW B 10; BS B- 9; NYP B- 9;NYT C+ 8; TONY C 7; TM C- 6; V D 4; TB F+ 2; TOTAL = 88 / 11 = 8 C+

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