STEW

Toni Lachelle Pollitt-Kristin Dodson-Nikkole Salter-Portia

 

by David Tane

 

STEW, now playing at the Walkerspace in Tribeca, is a timely offering of Page 73, the new plays incubator, occurring as it does in February, Black History Month.  Written by talented playwright, Zora Howard, STEW is a gritty family drama revolving around a domineering matriarch aptly referred to only as “Mama” (searingly played by the singularly named actress, Portia) struggling to maintain control over her life and those of her daughters and granddaughter (as well as unseen male family members), in the face of financial and cultural forces. Her struggle, which is ultimately unsuccessful, makes for a gripping ninety minutes of theater.

This one set drama takes place in a tidy kitchen in Mt. Vernon, NY, the largely minority populated and financially struggling lower Westchester County suburb abutting much more affluent towns and, as such, subject to difficult pressures, both financial and societal.  The program lists the period as “some time ago, but not too long ago” – the absence of a microwave (as well as cellphones) signals us that this likely is the 80’s.  The set, by Lawrence Moten III (Associate Set Designer to Rachel Hauck of the recent Broadway hit, What The Constitution Means To Me) is spot on. The kitchen is Mama’s fiefdom, the one place where she can rule with an iron fist, and on those rare occasions when she lets her guard down, with a kind heart.

 

Portia

 

The play opens with Mama attending to the titular stew, an annual feast she prepares to mark an important family occasion (Ms. Howard cunningly leaves us to form our own opinion as to exactly what that occasion is) and being startled by a loud noise from outside her culinary sanctuary. In apparent denial, Mama answers the alarmed cries of her daughters and granddaughter by dismissing the noise as an exploding tire. This event is revisited in the last moments of the play with devastating effects on all members of family, both seen and unseen.

As the play develops, we are  introduced to each of the characters and their respective challenges and histories and while some of their stories are at times a little too predictable, they nevertheless grab and hold our attention. The entire cast is excellent, especially Portia, as Mama, and Nikkole Salter, as Lillian, her eldest daughter.  The ensemble cast is extremely natural and their portrayal of women striving for respect and a better life (just what constitutes a better life depends greatly on who is doing the striving), amidst a society seeking to hold them back. The action is ably directed by Colette Robert even if, at times, the actors’ realistic stepping on each other’s lines makes it hard for the audience to catch every word.

 

Toni Lachelle Pollitt-Nikkole Salter-Kristin-Dodson

 

Each in her own unique way, every member of the family supports the others, even as they lash out. Lillian’s middle school aged daughter, Lil’ Mama, (Kristin Dodson) is at the center of one of Ms. Howard’s most deft demonstrations of this duality. As Lil’ Mama rehearses her lines for a school production of Richard III, (the couplet chosen by Ms. Howard is very telling), both Mama and Lillian, separately, try their hands at coaching Lil’ Mama, each believing they hold the key to Lil’ Mama’s theatrical triumph. This is yet  another example of the characters’  fierce attempt to control something, anything, in a world where they seem to have no control. The fact that Lil’ Mama ultimately rebels at their attempts to mold her doesn’t cause either her mother or grandmother to rethink their actions. 

As I stated earlier in this review, there are moments of tenderness and solidarity among all this harshness and frustration, one of the best being a touching scene between Mama and Lillian in which both women let down their respective guards to each other and revel in the unexpected comfort which results..

That the play ends in tragedy is not giving away anything – from the moment that “exploding tire”  first startles Mama, the audience tenses in the knowledge that all the denials in the world cannot stave off the inevitable tragedy that this family will ultimately suffer.  

STEW is well worth a visit.    

Photos: Jeremy Daniel

 

STEW – WalkerSpace, 46 Walker Street, NYC  www.page73.org  – runs thru February 22

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