Everything feels normal at first glance of the Tucker residence. Four women Portia (Mama), Kristin Dodson (Lil’ Mama), Toni Lachelle Pollitt (Nelly), Nikkole Salter (Lillian) set Zora Howard’s Stew, in an ordinary kitchen in New York.
The play opens with gospel music in the background and a loud, sharp noise interrupts the briefly peaceful morning. Then follows a piercing question—“Where’s Junior?”—which grows but never intensifies his absence in the opening scenes.
The close-knit family begins to work together to cook up a stew for a very important day, according to Mama. And in between cutting celery, garlic, and red peppers, secrets are revealed among the three generations of black women. Slowly, what felt like an invitation into the Tucker’s lives starts to feel like an invasion.
Mama is pressed about the food and time being wasted during the preparation of the meal. It’s the one day “out of 365” that she expects full cooperation from her family, but everyone seems otherwise engaged.
Lawrence E. Moten III and Caitlyn Murphy added noticeable props to the traditional black family household. The headscarves on each actor, set with pin curls and wraps respectively, help to magnify the nightly black woman routine, but also stand in the place of each character hiding until being ready. There’s a line from Mama, “It’s not about being good, it’s about being ready,” which previews a revelation by the end of the play.
Also, Mama is in her muumuu throughout the entire show. Lillian is found wearing pajamas and a casual robe, while Nelly’s off-the-shoulder tee highlights her own teen drama.
Lil Mama’s “Boys and Girls Club” top helps to paint her innocence as Kristin’s Dodson offers such a realistic 12-year old that it’s a mystery. She’s so good at asking questions and portraying to stay in a child’s place.
Portia’s acting is unwavering and her strength shines through Mama’s “weakness.” There’s also a scene where Lil Mama is rehearsing her lines for an upcoming audition. The scene is full of hilarious theater jokes like: earning your props, the art of umph, and choice-making as an actor, but most importantly, the Shakespearean lines help connect the dots to Mama’s troubles.
Further, the artistic direction Mama, Nelly, and Lillian each give Lil’ Mama comes in true black family form as they impart their share of performance experience and showmanship respectively.
Toni Lachelle Pollitt plays the naive teen very well, flashing utterly ridiculous lines from Nelly’s young and fearless demeanor. She wishes to drive off into the sunset of adulthood with aspirations of starting a new life when she turns 18. Nelly is perhaps aware of the cycle she continues (spoiler) being pregnant at the same age her sister and mother were.
And Nikkole Salter portrays Lillian as a caring mother who is not herself being cared for. She’s wise enough to know of her own shortcomings, whether she admits them or not, and tries to influence Nelly against her impulsive decisions. The banter between the sisters is fresh and relatable as they swap “wisdom.”
Stew is overall a hilarious show until it’s not. The cross-generational moments are the strongest when Lil Mama is alone onstage with Mama, and Lillian with Nelly, and Nelly trying to convince Lil Mama that she’s grown, referring to her boyfriend as “her man,” while preparing herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The display of contrast within each generation is striking, but the similarities are not too far behind. In essence, everyone needs to feel needed.
By the end, we insert our reality into the display on stage and can relate to their desperate failures, complicated relationships, and the desire to fix things or to be needed in some way. From the moment we realize the beans and the neck bones are not the only thing being neglected, and the stew is not the only thing cooking up, we process an open-ended exploration about the captivity of the mind. That is, thoughts that infiltrate our daily doing in the presence and absence of the so-called neglected.
Zora Howard’s Stew is a remarkable play that pulls off a simple design, a small cast, and a single, zoomed in moment, yet forms a deeply profound transport of the mind all in a day’s work. The end dumps us into an alternate reality wondering if the choices we’ve made were too much or not enough.
Page 73’s newest production, Stew by Zora Howard, is currently showing at Walkerspace until February 22.