In making her professional playwriting debut courtesy of Page 73, Zora Howard has written a powerful kitchen sink drama in Stew, as much about making a literal stew as about the emotional stew the four women in the Tucker family of Mt. Vernon find themselves in. While many of the elements are family, Howard combines them in new ways so that the play seems both new and true. With a terrific cast headed by Portia (The Rose Tattoo, Ruined, Rinse Repeat, Our Lady of 121st Street) as the family matriarch, director Colette Robert keeps the temperature continually simmering on a low boil until all of the secrets and events have been revealed. This is an American tragedy as well as a study in how we live in this era.
Although it is only seven A.M. on a Saturday morning in the Tucker kitchen (in Lawrence E. Moten III’s impressive working kitchen), Mama has already put up the stew that she makes once a year to serve 50 people at her church. Also in her two story house are her 17-year-old daughter Nelly who can’t keep her mind off her boyfriend, and her 30-ish daughter Lillian who has returned for an unexpected visit with her pre-teen daughter Lil’ Mama and her younger (unseen) son Junior. Lillian’s husband J.R. is nowhere to be seen as is true of all the men in these women’s lives.
As the women prepare the meal and the side dishes to be ready to take to church in the early afternoon, they reveal not only their lives but their emotional states. Mama is under doctor’s orders but is ignoring them. Lillian and J.R. are having problems (we first assume financial); Nelly is too curious about Lillian’s phone calls while she has a secret of her own. When Lil’ Mama reveals that she is about to audition for the role of “Queen Elizabeth” in a school production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, a great deal more information spills out: both Mama and Lillian have been teachers at the local school, and Mama, Lillian and Nelly have acted in local productions.
In fact Mama is “the founder and director emeritus of the Mt. Vernon High Dramatic League as well as the first soloist of the Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church.” All take a stab at teaching the bored Lil’ Mama how it should be done, but when Mama takes to the stairs to play this woman who has lost a son, a husband and a brother in a magnificent, spare performance, we discover both that she has lost a son at some point and that there is a continuum between this Middle Ages Queen’s travails and African American women today. And where is Lillian’s Junior who should have been home hours ago?
Many things seem to happen that have happened before. The message may be that black women’s lives tend to repeat each other’s. The play begins and ends with the same scene suggesting an alternate version of events, one comic, one tragic. Each member of the audience must decide for him or herself. A great many near catastrophes happen in the course of the play (for one, the stew is burned and they have to start again) but are neatly solved – all except one.
While Stew has many familiar elements (after all, it is set in a kitchen while a meal is prepared, a recent trope), it is unforgettable in its realism, in its allegory and in its three-dimensional characters. In the program, the playwright thanks nine women who have raised her, suggesting that there is an autobiographical element to her story and the characters.
Under the direction of Robert, the cast could be living their roles, rather than acting them, in their layered performances, but then the casting has been superb. As Mama, Portia dominates her family with her rules and her sardonic humor, losing her temper periodically due to various provocations that seem to repeat themselves continually over time. As her older daughter Lillian, Nikkole Salter plays a very complex woman who has a great many problems that she is trying to cope with simultaneously. Her face reveals the inner battles that she is having.
Toni Lachelle Pollitt’s 17-year-old Nelly is the smug teenager who thinks she knows it all as she goes through the same stages as all the women in her family. Kristin Dodson is amusing as the precocious and curious Lil’ Mama who continually follows each question with a question and sees and hears everything, including things she is not meant to know about. Several off-stage neighbors are so well described that we feel we have met them also. The unseen men are also a dramatic presence in the play in the way they affect the women’s lives.
Aside from the realistic setting, Dominque Fawn Hill’s costumes are also totally convincing for each age group. The lighting by Stacey Derosier has the extreme brightness of the working kitchen where the family spends a great deal of time. Another major element is the sound design by Avi Amon, from the many phone calls, to the dog barking outside, to various other dramatic effects. Zora Howard’s Stew is an impressively sophisticated debut and should herald a fascinating and notable playwriting career. Stew is appearing at the Walkerspace which hosted Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, the Pulitzer Prize winning play of 2019.
Stew (through February 22, 2020)
Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.page73.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission