Focus : A Search for Justice--Ahead of Its Time

Karen Robinson-Jacobs is The Times' Special Projects Editor

The tale is all too familiar, the plot line depressingly real. Young tough with gun fires shot, kills innocent. No remorse, no arrest, no end in sight.

With a few minor modifications, you have the basic story behind "Zooman," the stark urban drama by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller. The film, which airs Sunday on Showtime, could easily have been based on events culled from today's headlines.

But, in fact, the play on which the movie was based, "Zooman and the Sign," was written in 1978. And the incident that prompted the play occurred almost 10 years before that on the streets of Philadelphia.

So, it could be said, that Charles Fuller, whose theatrical version of "Zooman" won two Obie Awards, is a man ahead of his time.

But if being able to predict disasters brings some degree of note, clearly, in this case, it brings no comfort.

"I do find it rather sad . . . that having been written so long ago (the story) is still relevant," says Fuller. "I think that's the most tragic thing of all."

Set in Brooklyn, the film begins with the shooting death of a young girl, felled by the errant bullet of a drug dealer. Zooman, played by newcomer Khalil Kain, feels no guilt or shame in taking the young life.

Lest anyone confuse "Zooman" with any of the recent life-is-rough-in-the-hood movies, Fuller insists that the message here goes beyond just another treatise on senseless gang-related violence.

One of the central issues here, he points out, is the reaction--or lack thereof--of the community. Even though the shooting takes place in plain view, neighbors refuse--out of fear, apathy or learned helplessness--to turn in the killer.

Frustrated and angry, the victim's father, played by Louis Gossett Jr. ("An Officer and a Gentleman"), puts up a sign on his front porch berating his neighbors for not coming forward with information that could bring the killer to justice.

The sign eventually attracts the media; soon the neighborhood is on the hot seat, with the grieving father pitted against some in the community who want the sign down.

On many levels, "Zooman," directed by Leon Ichaso, is as much about what happens when a bullet tears through a community as it is about the shattering of a single life.

Fuller says that when he wrote "Zooman," which also stars Charles Dutton ("Roc") and CCH Pounder, "I thought it would signal a new kind of young person on the horizon. And that if we saw this kind of young person, if we encountered him, that we'd be ready for him and we might be able to do something about it."

"In the late '80s and '90s we're beginning to try to do something to prevent 'Zooman' from happening," adds Fuller, a Philadelphia native who moved to L.A. two years ago. "But I think we've got a lot of work to do."

Showtime is airing "Zooman" as part of the cable industry's Voices Against Violence Week, which begins today. This week, cable stations will air programming aimed at "improving the understanding of violence in society and on television," according to a news release from the National Cable Television Assn. Given the growing criticism of the entertainment industry for producing a steady stream of films that many feel glorify violence, some might see the "Voices" campaign as a futile attempt at addressing the real problem.

Fuller, while lamenting the increase in violence, does not see a connection between on-screen violence and street-level mayhem.

"I respect the American public," says Fuller, 55. "I think people have every right to turn the set off or turn to another channel if they do not wish to look at things that are violent."

Fuller sees any attempts to coerce the industry to cut down on the carnage as censorship.

"I'm an artist. And no one in the world has the right to tell me what to do as a writer," says Fuller, who acknowledges he once staged a gunfight to lure people into the theater for one of his plays.

"I in no way intend to tell anyone else . . . what they ought to or ought not to do. That is simply . . . ridiculous. That's unjust."

Justice is a theme Fuller says is present in all of his works, from the award-winning "A Soldier's Play" to "Zooman."

Fuller was originally approached to produce "Zooman" for network television almost five years ago, but the deal fell through. He was approached again by Showtime in 1994, he says, "and here we are."

Next on Fuller's agenda is a screenplay on the life of jazz great Miles Davis and then shifting his focus to the Negro Baseball League for a six-hour miniseries. He doesn't care if his new ventures top the success of "A Soldier's Story."

"I tend not to look back," Fuller says with a smile. "What happens to us generally is that we look back and we find a groove and we stay there. I don't want to find a groove. I want to keep rolling."

"Zooman" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.

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