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

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 that kills a young girl on her porch. The rest of the story is about a grieving family who 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.

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.”

  • August 18, 2023
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