Zooman and the Sign by Charles Fuller

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Zooman and the Sign Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The play, set in Philadelphia, begins with a rapping monologue delivered by the jive-talking “Zooman,” Lester Johnson, a teenage thug who has just killed a little girl in a gang shootout. “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says, expressing no remorse for having killed the twelve-year-old. Zooman’s monologues continue to punctuate the action, but the main dramatic focus is upon the angry and grief-stricken family of Zooman’s victim.

Reuben Tate (a bus driver who has been estranged from his wife because of an affair with another woman) and his wife, Rachel, are mourning the death of their child Jinny; they are joined in their grief by Uncle Emmett and their fifteen-year-old son, Victor. Emmett is a hothead who argues for revenge, “an eye for an eye,” but Reuben is more restrained, exclaiming, “We’re not head hunters!” Rachel wrongly blames herself for having allowed the child to play outside. Victor says nothing in this argument but asks his friend Russell if he can find him a gun, which Russell agrees to do.

When a neighbor, Donald Jackson, stops by to offer condolences, the audience learns that Reuben had been a light-heavyweight boxer and something of a local celebrity of one time. Jackson tells Reuben that no one on the block would tell the police that they had seen anything. The Tate family knows that there were, in fact, witnesses, and they are disturbed by their neighbors’ silence.

In his second monologue, Zooman confesses that “I shot the little bitch ’cause I felt like it!” The audience learns that Zooman and his friend Stockholm served time for raping a schoolteacher, a crime that Zooman claims they did not commit. It is later revealed that Zooman has committed other crimes as well, including armed robbery, and that he is a hard and brutal case. He seems to be the egotistical personification of evil.

Meanwhile, Reuben has attempted to contact the neighbors to find a witness to the shooting, but they are all afraid to come forward. Ash Boswell, a family friend, explains that “black people don’t like to deal with the police.” The family frustration is heightened because Reuben had been seeing another woman, and Rachel knows about this. For the present, however, they are united in their grief.

Jinny wanted her parents back together. Ironically, her death has given them a common purpose, but the parents do not agree upon what course of action should be taken. Rachel wants to move to another neighborhood, but Reuben knows they cannot afford such a move and seems determined to improve their present neighborhood. They are devastated that neighbors they have known for fifteen years will not come forward to help them identify Zooman as the shooter. Victor has heard rumors that Zooman did the shooting. Reuben has a sign made to hang on his porch, a sign that reads: “The killers of our daughter Jinny are free on the streets because our neighbors will not identify them.” The sign proves to be controversial; many of the neighbors are offended.

In act 2, Russell advises Victor not to go after Zooman. He tells Victor that the neighbors are angry about the sign because “it brings the whole neighborhood down.” Russell regrets having given Victor the weapon and is reluctant to provide ammunition. When neighbors begin throwing bricks at the family’s front door in protest, Victor brandishes the gun, but his mother disarms him. Reuben and Emmett return from a bar, where they have been in a fight over the sign. Emmett has apparently broken his arm in the fight and needs to be taken to the hospital.

At the funeral service, some people write threats about the sign in the register, and tension builds. The Tates suspect that Jackson or his wife might have witnessed the killing. Jackson denies this but tells Reuben some of the...

(The entire section is 953 words.)