11/12/2020 STEW Theatrical Outfit Downtown Dialogues
THE OPTION OF HELP
For its final entry in its “Downtown Dialogues” series of new play readings, Theatrical Outfit has chosen a tasty 2020 Off-Broadway piece by Zora Howard, Stew. At first glance, a literal entry in the “Kitchen Sink Drama” school of realism (we spend a long day’s journey into family conflict in the Tucker family kitchen), it soon becomes apparent that Ms. Howard has more in mind than an angst-filled examination of family dysfunction – time eventually folds in on itself, looping back to the start of the day, and scattering hints that we’re really seeing the day through the imminent dementia of Mama’s fading grasp of reality.
Starting out in typical “Kitchen Sink” fashion, we are introduced to three generations of Tucker women, an African American family (semi) comfortably established in an old but well-cared-for suburban house. There is no denying that the kitchen is the beating heartbeat of this home. Mama is up early (too early perhaps) preparing stew (for fifty) for a yearly church event. Daughter Lillian has (begrudgingly) come home to assist, younger daughter Nelly is more interested in talking to “her man,” and grand-daughter Li’l’ Mama is in everyone’s business, at least whenever she isn’t trying to sneak away for some extra sleepy-bye time.
The opening is loud and raucous, as the women give vent to anger and pique and all the normal traditions of family gatherings we dread at this time of year. It’s true that Mama can be a martinet, a pillar of righteous anger if anyone strays from the straight and narrow (in thought, word, or deed),and spends precious little time actually listening to anyone and more than a little time being petulant about how her daughters leave her to fend for herself. Her health is failing, but she won’t have anything to do with anything her doctors (or daughters) suggest she do to care for herself. But it’s also true that her daughters are more concerned with their own secrets and lies, and Mama’s pique and petulance may just be quite justified.
This kitchen is first and foremost Mama’s domain and, even though she pleads with her progeny to help in the mammoth culinary tasks ahead, it is clear that any help is contingent on things being done “her way.” In the tradition of “too many cooks spoiling the broth,” any time Mama’s attention wanders, some disaster or other befalls the stew and another stain finds its way onto the wall. We know she’d much rather do it all herself, but she’s not sure if she can. And she definitely relishes the companionship of her family, despite her constant carping and upbraiding and (apparent) lack of warmth.
Thankfully, as more secrets are revealed, Mama shows her true heart, her family shows their true dependence and …. Well, I can’t tell you much more because it is at this point that the play reboots, restarts, and suggests a tragedy that just may send Mama completely over the edge. Maybe it already has.
On only two rehearsals, this talented cast of four women delivered a performance that is (nearly) opening-night ready, showing us all the family ties that bind (and gag). Despite the Zoom separation, they showed every evidence of being joined at the heart, finishing each other’s sentences, showing real reactions at things unsaid, conveying those unsaid thoughts with crystal clarity. Tonia Jackson centered the piece as Mama, running the gamut of emotions from anger to love to sorrow to confusion with apparent ease. Cynthia D. Barker was also terrific as Lillian, protective emotional walls firmly creating a barrier even a close-up camera can’t pierce. As her younger sister Nelly, Asia Howard was very good at keeping a firm undercurrent visible through her flighty on-the-surface wide-eyed youthful self-center. And as Li’l Mama, Jessenia Ingram was a true discovery, a college graduate who comes across as a 12-year old (“I’m almost thirteen!”), equal parts irritatingly in-your-business, and precocious observer who can see (and understand) far more than her elders giver her credit for.
The reading was tightly directed by Ibi Owalabi who managed to keep the emotional interrelationships consistently complex, and who kept a firm grasp on the food-and-family motifs and themes. I could pull out my thesaurus and say that Stew was a consistently entertaining mélange, a mishmash of family grudges and affections, a goulash of “kitchen-sink” reality and avant-garde stream-of-consciousness. It definitely was a compelling medley of from-the-gut performances and a vivid portrayal of a family in decline.
The After-Reading dialogue featured the director, the playwright, Mashama Bailey (the head chef of The Grey in Savannah), and Latria Graham (a South Carolina-based writer, editor and cultural critic) and was mediated by Gail O’Neill. The talk focused on the connections between food, kitchen and family, and praised the play’s accuracy in keeping the connection alive, as well as providing recognizable “types” and conflicts. The talk will be available for your on-demand viewing on Theatrical Outfit’s YouTube channel (along with the three previous Downtown Dialogues).
The experience of Stew was memorable and left a pleasantly meaty and long-lasting aftertaste.
-- Brad Rudy ( @bk_rudy # toDowntownDialogues #Stew)