It is quickly apparent that the titular dish in Zora Howard’s new play, Stew, is both literal and a metaphor for the emotions of the three generations of Tucker women who have gathered in Mama’s kitchen to prepare an important meal. The play opens as Mama (Portia) makes herself a cup of tea, while continuing work on the stew that simmers alongside family tensions. The kettle begins to whistle—a simmer turning to a boil—and shrieks urgently, as a loud shot outside brings the other women, sisters Lillian (Nikkole Salter) and Nelly (Toni Lachelle Pollitt) and Lillian’s daughter, Lil’ Mama (Kristin Dodson), rushing in with a cacophony of female voices.
From there, the energy remains high and the dialogue comes fast. The women often speak over each other in a tumultuous overlap typical of close-knit families, and—it is clear—especially characteristic of this one. Howard has an ear for speech that is at once natural and superbly witty. The experience is a little like eavesdropping—if you could guarantee that what you overheard would be consistently entertaining. The actors, to a woman, are more than adept, both at finding the necessary rhythm for such dialogue and in the fine touches, like the unconscious repetition of family tics or expressions that convincingly illustrate how family is not just in your blood, but gets under your skin. Portia is particularly magnificent as Mama—as befits a matriarch. But the cast as a whole never misses a beat and they maintain a firm rapport with one another and with the audience. Colette Robert’s sensitive and energetic direction successfully pairs polish with warmth.
It is tempting to call Stew a kitchen sink drama, if only because it features a very convincing kitchen sink, along with a seemingly functional stove. Every element of design exhibits a meticulous dedication to fine-tuned realism. Smells of cooking gradually pervade the small theatre; the stairs look like they really might lead to an upstairs bedroom; time-curled notes attached with magnets adorn the fridge; and the women grab and prepare food items, including snacks for themselves, without the tense feeling of stage business. There is complete coherence from Lawrence E. Moten III’s detailed set and Caitlyn Murphy’s props through to Dominique Fawn Hill’s costumes and Nikiya Mathis’s hair and wigs, so that the characterization of each woman lives through every aspect of the production, as well as the actors’ superb performances. The danger with realism (particularly in the era of TV dominance) is that the slightest slip or wrong note breaks the illusion. Stew is as close to technically flawless as most stage productions come, but a stain on the wall perplexed me—until the action revealed it to be the remnant of previous performances: a disconcerting reminder of the repetition inherent to theatre that could perhaps be intentional but doesn’t, here, clearly register as such.
Despite the general excellence of each element, that resemblance to a television drama starts to nag too. With realism, I am always tempted to ask: Why do this as live theatre, when TV and film can do it so much more perfectly? There is something (sadly) paradoxically radical in having such a conventional, apparently apolitical domestic drama play out in a black family. And yet, once the various hints start to add up that something is wrong with Mama and something is going on in the personal lives of both Nelly and Lillian, probably to do with men, and we’re waiting for the Big Fight which reveals all, even in a pacey 90 minutes, the play starts to feel predictable and less truly engaging. One starts to wonder where the creative urgency lies.
But Howard has greater subtlety and depth hidden in her conventional frame. Deftly woven into the play is Queen Elizabeth’s speech from Richard III, lamenting the murder of her sons and her inability to save them. The metatheatricality provides some great humor (and particular gems for “theatre people”) that deftly turns to profound pathos (it takes as strong an actor as Portia to achieve the rapid shift in tone) and quietly introduces the theme of sons lost to violent death into the play. I have no wish to spoil the ending; suffice it to say that it won me back. Stew concludes with a theatrical twist that drives home the darker tragedy hidden in the domestic drama. Stew reminds audiences that the personal is political and vice versa; that certain “issues” that play out on TV also play out, painfully, in family kitchens.