The lingering effects of racism percolate through Alonzo D. LaMont Jr.'s "Zulu Fits." Although the production directed by the playwright at Heralds of Hope Theater has some rough edges, it's a thoughtful play about how young African-Americans are literally haunted by things that happened centuries ago.
"Zulu Fits" is the final play to open in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
It also marks the debut for Heralds of Hope Theater in Baltimore City's Station North arts district. Small theaters, galleries, shops and restaurants have been popping up here in recent years, so add one more to the list. For its season opening in November, Heralds of Hope plans to do "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Great Pretender" and "Where the Sidewalk Cracks."
LaMont's current play is emotionally grounded in the teasing sibling relationship between Giselle (Lauren Blackwell) and NeeCee (Yakima Rich). These two actors work together extremely well. Their playful banter and expressive faces give an endearing sense of what it's like for teens who work things out through affectionate arguments.
Giselle and NeeCee definitely have some things to work out here, because their parents have just moved into an old house straddling the Maryland-Delaware border. The girls learn that this house reportedly was once inhabited by a notorious mid-19th-century slave trader. As in the venerable tradition of ghost stories, they eventually have reason to wonder if that horrible past still inhabits the site.
Mostly, though, these sisters are obsessed with a much more contemporary historical event. They have decided that one way or another they are going to free "Jersey Jack" Black (Marc Stevens), who was convicted and imprisoned 20 years ago for the murder of a white policeman. From his prison cell, Jersey Jack insists that he fired in self-defense; he fires off revolutionary rhetoric from what amounts to a jailhouse pulpit.
Giselle and NeeCee naively accept all of Jersey Jack's claims. However misguided some of their actions may be in "Zulu Fits," their idealistic motives help keep the audience on their side.
Without giving anything away, the play makes clear soon enough that there may be more to Jersey Jack's personal history than initially seems to be the case. An F.B.I. agent who's very familiar with this case, Agent Jackson (Tyrone Requer), ensures that Jersey Jack's claims are subject to scrutiny.
Although the play's thematic links between slavery and modern expressions of racism sometimes are clumsy in their phrasing, there is an underlying intellectual connection that's certainly solid.
What consistently proves clumsier here is that the many short scenes in the first act constantly jump from live action in the foreground to video footage in the background. Most of this taped footage is devoted to close-up shots of Jersey Jack spouting his philosophy. Alternating between live and taped scenes actually works quite well at first, but it's eventually overdone to the point where the prisoner's proclamations become redundant. The transitions also tend to be awkward, as the story bounces back and forth.
It's telling that the video-spiked first act feels bloated, even though it has a reasonable 60-minute running time, whereas the second act, which mostly does away with the video enhancement, is so sparely action-oriented that its 30-minute running time ironically seems undernourished.
Another bit of awkwardness involves having a single actor, Jerome Banks-Bey, play three very different characters: a postal worker named Buddy, the girls' Dad, and a figure known as Mr. Free-Man. The actor is fine, but more thought should be given to whether this theatrical division of labor makes sense. One particularly fast and odd change of identity results in costuming that incorporates sartorial elements of both Buddy and Dad.
This new play is presented within a playwrights festival in which you're part of the process of noting what works and what would benefit from revision. The messages conveyed by "Zulu Fits" are well worth hearing, and the good news is that their less-than-perfect delivery can be improved.
"Zulu Fits" runs through Sept. 4 at Heralds of Hope Theater, at 120 W. North Ave., in Baltimore. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.; no show on Sept. 3. Tickets are $15. Call 410-997-3997 or go to http://www.heraldsofhopetheatercompany.com.