After 10 years, is Philly’s Theatre in the X a model for the future of American theater?

The free performance of Charles Fuller’s 1979 drama “Zooman and the Sign” grapples with neighborhood violence that has hardly changed.

Listen 1:37
Bryce Zenon portrays Zooman, the 15-year-old who fatally shoots a 12-year-old girl in Charles Fuller's ''Zooman and the Sign.'' The play is being staged by Theatre in the X

Bryce Zenon portrays Zooman, the 15-year-old who fatally shoots a 12-year-old girl in Charles Fuller's ''Zooman and the Sign.'' The play is being staged by Theatre in the X, marking its 10th anniversary at Malcolm X Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This weekend, Theatre in the X is marking 10 years of performing free, outdoor plays in the middle of Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia by staging Charles Fuller’s 1980 drama, “Zooman and the Sign.”

Fuller, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1982 play “A Soldier’s Play,” grew up in Philadelphia and died last year. “Zooman” starts with a random shooting by a troubled teenager named Zooman who kills a young girl on her porch. The rest of the story is about a grieving family that tries to find the killer, and a community that refuses to come forward to identify him.

After the murder of his sister, Victor (Jeffery Scott) acquires a gun to protect his family, much to the dismay of his mother (LaNeshe Miller-White). ”Zooman and the Sign,” a play about gun violence, loss, and a quest for justice, is being staged by Theatre in the X at Malcolm X Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“This is a play, although written in 1979, clearly still relevant. It’s amazingly relevant,” said Theatre in the X co-founder Walter DeShields. “There was a young girl, an 11-year-old shot on 52nd and Market right outside where we rehearse, three weeks ago.”

The sign of the play’s title is a large banner hung by the grieving father, played by DeShields, accusing his neighbors of letting his daughter’s killer go free by not speaking up. The neighbors are quick to protest the sign.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Walter DeShields, who portrays Reuben, the father of a murdered girl in Charles Fuller’s ”Zooman and the Sign,” reviews his script before a rehearsal at Malcolm X Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Fuller wrote the play so that no one is clearly the hero or the villain: not the family, the neighbors, or even the 15-year-old killer. Director Ozzie Jones said there are no easy answers to the tragedy.

“The play could not be more spot on,” said Jones, who steeped the play in 1979 clothes and early hip-hop music. “In particular, the play’s position about what the Black community’s relationship should be to the police. I don’t know of any other play that has that discussion as directly, and as well, as this one.”

Ozzie Jones, director of ”Zooman and the Sign” for Theatre in the X, gives instructions from a lawn chair during a rehearsal at Malcolm X Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Another co-founder of the company, LaNeshe Miller-White, said after each of the four scheduled performances this weekend the audience will be invited to stay for a talkback session led by Philadelphia organizations working to curb violence, including Philly Truce, URBNSeek, and Forget Me Knot Children and Youth Services.

“We wanted to bring this very powerful work from Charles Fuller to the community to spark the conversation around what our responsibility as community members is when it comes to quelling community violence,” said Miller-White.

Miller-White, DeShields, and Carlo Campbell started Theatre in the X in 2013 in response to what they say were a lack of creative opportunities for Black theater artists in Philadelphia, and the lack of Black stories being presented on stage.

Miller-White said she wanted to connect Black artists with Black audiences.

London DeShields portrays Jinny, the 12-year-old girl murdered in ”Zooman and the Sign,” being performed by Theatre in the X at Malcolm X Park. Shot to death in the opening scene, Jinny haunts the remainder of the play as a ghost. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“To give ourselves and our peers some opportunities to flex their artistic muscles, to have some gigs,” she said. “And also to bring theater to a part of the city and an audience that had been left behind.”

Her co-founder, Campbell, remembers Theatre in the X starting more organically: there were artists who wanted to perform, and a neighborhood that wanted to see it.

“We didn’t start the company. The people started the company,” Campbell said. “I knew all my friends were dope. I wanted to show what we had, and I didn’t want it to be tethered to anybody’s idea of the institution or protocol.”

Carlo Campbell, a co-founder of Theatre in the X, sets up the lighting for a rehearsal of ”Zooman and the Sign.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The way Campbell remembers it, Theatre in the X was supposed to be a one-time performance in 2013 of the Amiri Baraka play, “A Black Mass.” But after that performance, people started asking what they were going to do the following year.

“I remember feeling empty after we were done, because it took a lot to get it done and I remember finishing and feeling like, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “I didn’t feel sad. It wasn’t like that, but it was like the work wasn’t done. That was the emptiness.”

Since then, Theatre in the X has grown to produce plays indoors, like “Pac and Biggie Are Dead,” a hip-hop spin on Tom Stoppard’s classic “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” at the Mandell Theater on the Drexel University Campus last fall. The company also collaborates with other Philadelphia theater companies, such as with EgoPo Classic Theater to stage Langston Hughes’ “The Ways of White Folks” inside the Glen Foerd mansion in Northeast Philadelphia.

But the centerpiece of its season is always the return to the park in the summertime.

Jeffery Scott, who portrays the brother of the murdered girl in Charles Fuller’s ”Zooman and the Sign,” gets fitted with a wig by costume designer Tiffany Bacon during a rehearsal at Malcolm X Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It is very much a family reunion, a family cookout, a barbeque, a block party – that is definitely the vibe,” said Miller-White. “People come out with their chairs and their food and they sit down and they see folks they might not have seen in a while. It’s a very communal and familial kind of environment.”

The productions can be a bit more chaotic than a conventional performance inside a theater, with distractions, loud conversations, and sometimes people walking through the performance not realizing a play is in progress. But that energy is essential for speaking to neighborhood audiences.

LaNeshe Miller-White (right), attaches a microphone to actress Tasha Holmes before a dress rehearsal of ”Zooman and the Sign” at Malcolm X Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We come from the hip-hop world,” said Campbell. “One of my greatest emcee philosophers Keith Murray said, ‘I need beer and a lot of noise in my ear, in a rowdy atmosphere to even think clear.’ So around all this chaos, you find the beauty in it to thrive.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We wanted audiences to be able to see theater that speaks to them,” said DeShields. “So, boom, you come to Malcolm X Park, where the community is a lot of Black and brown folks. A lot of white folks moving in, too, which is cool, but a lot of Black and brown folks and stories that they know, that they understand, that relate to their lived experience. That’s important.”

As performance companies everywhere are struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of 2020, they are seeking new ways to convince audiences to return to theaters. Director Ozzie Jones sees Theatre in the X as a model for how theater can build better neighborhoods, and is “one of the most important theater companies in the United States.”

Theatere in the X sets up for a rehearsal at Malcolm X Park, where the group has been performing for the last 10 years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“When human beings don’t make art, they are violent. I don’t know how to say it any plainer,” said Jones. “In my personal view, a society that is not making art, watching art, talking about it, dancing together, and making love – it starts killing each other. Immediately.”

“Zooman and the Sign” will be performed, for free, in Malcolm X Park Thursday and Friday, August 17 and 18, at 7 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, August 19 and 20, at 5 p.m.

During a rehearsal for ”Zooman and the Sign” at Malcolm X Park, Zooman (Bryce Zenon) is cradled by the father of the girl he murdered (Walter DeShields) after being shot by the girl’s uncle (T.C. Storm Caldwell). (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal