Powerful play confronts racism, Facebook, and madness
Published: August 31, 2011
By Alonzo D. LaMont Jr.
Alonzo D. LaMont Jr. walks a lot of lines in his play Zulu Fits, the final production of the 2011 Baltimore Playwrights Festival. He’s edgy without being offensive; philosophical but not dry; experimental but accessible. And his powerful work touches on so many themes that it should be erratic, but it’s somehow cohesive. Simple ideas like the difficulty of raising kids in the age of Facebook and Twitter sort themselves out under a veil of history, mysticism, and the power of the mind, all enveloped by an examination of race and radical activism. It’s a whirlwind that’s held together by tight writing and a talented, well-selected cast.
Jersey Jack Black (Marc Stevens) has been in prison for 20 years for shooting a cop, a crime he claims he didn’t commit. (Baltimore viewers will recognize a parallel in convicted murderer Marshall “Eddie” Conway.) He’s become a celebrity prisoner, and a symbol for black power, with hordes of followers petitioning for his release. Two of the followers are sisters Giselle (Lauren Blackwell) and NeeCee (Yakima Rich), teenagers who’ve started a blog dedicated to securing Jersey’s release. The blog draws fans, and the fans create enough excitement that the girls convince themselves they’re the ones who will finally set Jersey free.
Meanwhile, they’ve moved into a new house with their mom (whom we never meet) and dad (Jerome Banks-Bey). The house is believed to be the former home of Patty Cannon, a real-life historical figure who captured freedmen and sold them back into slavery using other blacks as decoys. Giselle is fixated on the idea of living in such a house; later, Cannon’s tactics become a clever metaphor for societal pressures that can con innocents from the path of the straight and narrow.
The set of Zulu Fits consists of Load of Fun’s black-box stage and a few props—chairs, Styrofoam coffee cups. But behind the stage hangs a plain white sheet onto which videos are projected. Jersey makes videos from prison, which other characters watch on their cell phones; what they watch, we see on the sheet. The clips, set in Baltimore, lend the play a feeling of reality. One includes a series of workout videos Jersey films in prison, providing a moment of subtle humor. But the videos also expose his dark side: Jersey has mysterious psychological attacks, the titular “Zulu fits,” about which he’s written a manifesto. In one inspired take, a shaky video camera approaches a woman walking down the Avenue in Hampden. A voice behind the camera asks her opinion of Jersey’s mental status. She’s a doctor, an expert on fits, and testifies that Jersey’s a threat to himself and others and should not be released.
As the play progresses, storylines collapse into themselves like crumbling buildings. The girls become overwhelmed by their fans and arm themselves with weapons and tough attitudes. Sordid details and new characters emerge: an older man named Buddy (also Banks-Bey) who lusts after the young girls, unaware they’re so young; an Agent Jackson (Tyrone Requer), who uses Buddy as a decoy to intercept the girls’ attempts to break Jersey free. Soon other characters begin to succumb to Zulu fits, outbreaks of jerking limbs and maniacal laughing described in Jersey’s manifesto as “a corruption of the spirit that perpetuates the ugliness of racism. . . an ancestral revenge, a hallucinatory madness that lives in your soul.”
Buddy, a college graduate who’s somehow become a postal worker just like his uneducated dad, is sincere, if not easily swayed, and Banks-Bey becomes the character with a smoothness revealed in small gestures, like the way he splays his booted feet while Jackson interrogates him. Requer is solid as Jackson, a slick cop who seems to control all the action from afar. And Stevens, a thick dark man with studs in his ears and a short goatee, is the perfect cliché of a powerful prisoner: strong, intelligent, and well-spoken, simultaneously mad and scary.
But the action centers around Giselle and NeeCee, and Blackwell and Rich have a powerful chemistry. They’re both young, but teetering on adulthood. They navigate this fine line with finesse, swaying hips and strutting in heels one moment and collapsing into girlish giggles on their bedroom floor the next.
The play’s first half lasts an hour, almost twice as long as the second, but the action doesn’t really pick up until late in the play. The increasing intensity is unexpected, the resolution shocking. By the time Agent Jackson reclaims the stage to tie up the turmoil, just as he introduced it, the audience has been forced to reconsider the meaning of rebellion, the value of radicalism, and the elusive nature of racism. “An angry black man never goes out of style,” Jersey screams in an impassioned moment. “He’ll never stop playing the race card. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
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