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Last August, after four people were killed outside the City Grill on Main Street, it took police just 11 days to apprehend the suspected gunman, Riccardo McCray. His trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

In September, 15-year-old Dominique Maye was gunned down while doing a homework assignment in the front room of her aunt's house on Hewitt Avenue. This time, it was nearly four months until police arrested Kevin J. Davis, a Buffalo gang member who police allege killed Maye while he was gunning for someone else.

Then there's the unsolved double homicide of Jamie Norton and Joey Lovett, who were killed by a gunman on Hirschbeck Street in 2009 -- just two of 60 murders in Buffalo that year.

This sort of violence -- all too familiar to many Buffalonians -- inspired the current production of Charles Fuller's 1980 play "Zooman and the Sign." The show, which has some chilling parallels to Maye's case, is a co-production among Ujima Theatre and the newer East Side companies Alemaedae Productions and Xavier Films.

The play opens shortly after the slaying of 12-year-old Jinny Tate, who was killed by a gunman's stray bullet while sitting on her porch. It follows the Tate family's attempt to make sense of the violence and to understand why their neighbors, some of whom witnessed the crime, have decided to remain silent.

"You have neighbors against neighbors, family members against family members: the blame game," the show's co-producer, Phil Davis, said of the play. "It touches on so many things that if people don't change their minds, it'll at least open up people's minds."

"Zooman and the Sign" is not a perfect play, nor is it a perfect production. But it is that vital piece of art that not only speaks to an issue screaming out for a solution, but tries to help us find one. It does that not by arriving at some silver bullet "answer" to the complex problem of gang violence or the reason so many keep quiet during the hunt for suspects, but simply by raising awareness and encouraging empathy.

"A lot of people who don't experience it, they don't know what the family goes through. They don't know what the killer or the victims or the people that know the victims go through. I think that what the piece does very well is it sheds light on all of this," Davis said. "I think once people see this, they'll realize how important the community is and how a tragic event like this can break down a community to the core."

Theater can be employed to very different ends, which can sometimes seem to be at odds with one another: some plays provide escape while others attempt to shock us out of our complacency; some try to hold up a mirror to our own experiences while others serve as a window into foreign lives; some satisfy the satisfied and others afflict the comfortable.

In Buffalo, a city where theatrical appetites range widely, there's room for all of that. But what is in danger of being lost, as the latest round of cultural funding cuts begin to take their toll, are plays like "Zooman," which attempt to clue audiences in to the serious problems our communities face and in so doing, speed the hunt for real solutions. These plays struggle mightily to create genuine understanding, a prerequisite for progress. By eliminating support for the companies that do this bold and important work, progress on issues like gang violence pulls even further out of reach.

In the 2011 Erie County budget, not a single cultural group of the many that are dedicated to serving Buffalo's East Side -- nor a single theater anywhere in the city -- has been supported. Legislators had to fight tooth-and-nail to restore Erie County Executive Chris Collins' funding cuts to Operation Prime Time, a community group that demonstrably saves the lives of at-risk youth by fostering a culture where violence plays no role.

It's hard, in this light, not to see this attempt to dismantle the diversity of Buffalo's cultural institutions as a declaration of indifference to the problems that confront the city. It's almost impossible, when you look at how little money it takes to keep a small theater like Ujima afloat, not to view Collins' whitewashed notion of cultural achievement as inherently dismissive of certain cultures, certain income levels, certain geographic areas and -- let's say it out loud -- certain races.

The idea, evidently, is to give up on solving the root causes of violence through education and empathy -- of which the arts are a vital part -- in favor of a policy of enforced indifference. Ani DiFranco may have said it best: "The old dogs have got a new trick: It's called criminalize the symptoms while you spread the disease."

A play like "Zooman and Sign," through the poetry of its language and its chilling fidelity to the truth, can be a major part of the cure.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com