A 12-year-old girl playing on her front porch is accidentally killed by a gang member's stray bullet; the girl's father posts a sign berating his neighbors for refusing to come forth as witnesses.
An innocent 20-year-old is murdered by shots fired from an automobile; his grief-stricken mother places flowers and balloons the fatal street corner so residents won't forget.
The first incident is the fictional foundation for Charles Fuller's 1980 drama, "Zooman and the Sign," currently receiving a disturbingly timely production at Arena Players. Just how timely it is can be measured by the second incident, which appeared in recent headlines.
Like Mr. Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Soldier's Play," "Zooman" focuses on the causes and impact of violence. And appropriately, it is powerful drama.
As in the news, we don't meet the murder victim in "Zooman"; she has been shot before the play begins. All we know of little Jinny Tate comes from the memories recounted by her grief-stricken family. Her mother's primary interest is in honoring those memories -- a duty she feels her husband has forgotten in his quest for justice.
Pam Sparks, who played the mother at Sunday's matinee (most of the lead roles are double cast), looks young for the part, but she makes the mother's heartache feel real. Eddie Smith plays her husband as a man both bewildered and infuriated by the crimes of a society he thought he understood.
Those crimes threaten to accelerate after he posts his sign. The same neighbors who pretended to be oblivious to the murder aren't oblivious to the sign. In fact, they seem convinced that the sign -- more than the crime -- creates a bad impression of the
block, particularly once the media become involved.
The sign also angers Jinny's murderer, a 15-year-old punk who addresses the audience in a series of monologues. Steven Maurice's Zooman never seems as callous or dangerous as the role demands, but the character's baseness is inescapable in Mr. Fuller's hate-filled, profanity-strewn prose.
The set -- representing the Tate living room, as well as the front porch and the trash-laden park where Zooman hangs out -- is rather unwieldy. A more manageable design might have stressed suggestion over realism. After all, there's plenty of realism in the script.
Recognizing this, director Donald Russell Owens has eliminated the final curtain call. Instead, he explains to the audience that the story doesn't end here. That sad reality seems chillingly true in Baltimore these days, and it is all the more reason Arena Players should be commended for staging this tough-minded drama.
"Zooman and the Sign" continues at Arena Players weekends through Nov. 24; call (410) 728-6500.