Theater review by Naveen Kumar
A gunshot rings out in the first moments of Stew, Zora Howard’s subtly haunting new domestic drama. Mama Tucker (a fierce and tremendous Portia) insists it was just a blown tire as generations of other Tucker women, startled awake by the sound, scramble into her weathered but well-ordered kitchen. There’s too much riding on the day’s cooking to get bogged down with distractions. It’s a good thing everyone’s up early to chip in.
Chores and everyday squabbles occupy the women, their hair wrapped in satin scarves, as they trim, chop, wash and assemble ingredients for a meal meant to serve Mama’s whole congregation. Her younger daughter (Toni Lachelle Pollitt) is 17 and enamored of a guy she insists on calling her “man” (because boyfriends are temporary, and this one is forever). The eldest (Nikkole Salter), born when Mama was a teenager, is visiting with a daughter of her own, whom they call Lil’ Mama (Kristin Dodson).
The absence of men in the Tucker family kitchen—the fly-on-the-wall scenic design is by Lawrence E. Moten III—seems incidental at first, but grows to feel ominous. Lil’ Mama has a brother who’s out at a friend’s; no one’s quite sure whether her dad will join them at church later that day. But she wishes he were there to help prepare her audition for a comically age-inappropriate school production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The scene, which Mama coaches her to deliver to a sweet potato, finds Queens Elizabeth and Margaret mourning their murdered sons.
In such moments, Howard’s subtext about the precarity and perseverance of black lives, which is threaded delicately elsewhere in the play, threatens to become too obvious. But her intimate 90-minute drama, tautly directed by Colette Robert for page 73, invites a comfortable familiarity, as though we too were in our pajamas at Mama’s kitchen table. When a wake-up call finally arrives, it’s all the more bracing to bolt upright and face the truth.
Walkerspace (Off Broadway). By Zora Howard. Directed by Colette Robert. With Portia, Kristin Dodson, Toni Lachelle Pollitt, Nikkole Salter. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.