Penumbra takes on community issues with "Zooman"

Ahanti Young
Ahanti Young plays Zooman in the Penumbra Theatre's production of "Zooman and the Sign."
Photo/Ann Marsden

Gun violence was the centerpiece of some recent discussion going on at the Capitol and in the Twin Cities after a spurt of deadly gunfire. It's also the centerpiece of the current production at the Penumbra Theatre, "Zooman and the Sign."

In the play, a young girl is killed in a random shooting outside her inner-city home. Her grieving family confronts silent neighbors, hoping to bring her killer to justice. Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy first staged "Zooman" some 20 years ago. And he says the unfortunate violence in recent months presented another opportunity to use the play to deal with the issue.

Faye M. Price and James Craven
Faye M. Price (Rachel Tate) and James Craven (Rueben Tate) play the parents of a young girl who's killed in a random shooting.
Photo by Ann Marsden

"Penumbra is a professional theater inside of a community," Bellamy says. "That means we have a responsibility to bring the community's issues to the fore and hopefully shed some light on them, give them a forum in which to address these issues, all that sort of stuff."

Bellamy says theater is more than just a night out.

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"Art, for us, isn't a separate activity that we go to for one night to be entertained," he insists. "Art, for us, is the way we work out problems and issues and deal with self-perception and grief and joy."

Rueben Tate, the father in "Zooman," played by actor James Craven, confronts his silent neighbors, hoping to prod them into coming forward with information.

Bellamy says he's not endorsing any particular approach to dealing with violence in Twin Cities communities, but he does want audiences to begin a dialogue to help address the issue.

Art, for us, is the way we work out problems.

"If more people talk about it, if one person is affected enough to try to reach out and make a change, then it's worth it," Bellamy says. "One person is worth it. Hopefully, we'll have a little bit more effect than one person, but that's OK. One life saved is worth the effort."

The Penumbra Theatre isn't the only company in town presenting works relevant to current events. The Children's Theatre Company recently staged the play, "Anon(ymous)." It took on immigration issues in an adaptation of Homer's "Odyssey." In this version of the tale, a refugee makes his way through the landscape of today's United States. Peter Brosius, artistic director of the CTC, says he wanted the play's message to create a ripple effect with audiences.

"You don't know exactly what it's going to do," he admits. "It's not determinant, not didactic work. We created, hopefully, work of poetry, beauty and joy. But what you do hope it creates some critical thinking, it makes you ask a question, it makes you see things differently. If even for a moment, a seed of possibility is planted. And, hopefully out of that, your world's a little bit bigger."

As part of their efforts, both the Children's Theatre Company and Penumbra held community forums after several shows. Audiences were able to ask questions and talk about their concerns with cast members and civil rights activists, as well as human rights and police officials...and even the mother of two victims of gun violence.

The stars
James Craven (Rueben Tate) and Ahanti Young (Zooman) star in the drama "Zooman and the Sign" at the Penumbra Theatre.
Photo by Ann Marsden

Ava Brown, whose son and daughter were wounded in separate Minneapolis shootings about nine years ago, says she could identify with the pain of the characters in "Zooman." And she says the play puts the issue of violence at center stage for the discussions that followed.

"People were interested in, 'What is it that I can do? What is it that I can do with my life that can make the difference or help turn this thing around?' We all need to ask be asking ourselves that question," says Brown: "'What is it that can we do?'"

Brown says everyone can do something to make a difference...and that begins with caring.

Caring should not be an easy thing do in the case of Zooman, the main character in the Penumbra play; he can be scary. But he's not a one-dimensional villain. Playwright Charles Fuller, who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Soldier's Play," tried to create compassion for Zooman by giving the audience glimpses of who Zooman really is...that he has feelings, friends and family.

While he doesn't claim to have a magic wand that will resolve the issues his production raises, Lou Bellamy hopes it will make a difference to put a human face on the problem.

"It's about humanity and it's about finding humanity in someone who is so different than yourself," he says. "Perhaps that's the extent of our humanity, when we can see it in someone who is so unlike us and then we say, yeah, I recognize the me in you and that's a good thing." Bellamy says that even as a small theater company in a St. Paul neighborhood, with the staging of "Zooman and the Sign," Penumbra is making the world better in some way.