Tuesday, February 11, 2020

162 (2019-2020): Review: STEW (seen February 10, 2020)

"Stirring the Pot"

In life, they say, the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. Judging from all the plays about food-making (recent examples being Seared and Richard Nelson’s Apple Family series), some writers think it’s also the best way to an audience’s heart.  Even if we don’t get to eat anything (which does sometimes happen!), just watching a meal being prepared can be fulfilling.

Nikkole Salter (rear), Portia. All photos: Jeremy Daniel.
Add to the recipe tasty characters, season it with spicy dialogue, wash it down with a satisfying narrative, and top it off with a superb ensemble and you have Stew, Zora Howard’s zesty dramedy, in what Michelin might rate a three-star production, at Tribeca’s Walkerspace.
Kristin Dodson.
Even the best meals sometimes have a little gristle, however, and Stew has a bit of its own. Everything else is so appetizing, though, that few theatregoers are going to leave this 90-minute repast with growling stomachs.
Toni Lachelle Pollitt, Portia, Kristin Dodson, Nikkole Salter.
The main dish being prepared is the eponymous one, created as we watch by a lower-middle-class black family, the Tuckers, in Mount Vernon, New York. Ruled by the imperious matriarch, Mama (Portia), the feisty Tuckers include Mama’s two daughters, the mid-30s Lillian (Nikkole Salter) and the not-yet-18-year-old Nelly (Tony Lachelle Pollitt), along with Lillian’s 14-year-old daughter, Lil’ Mama (Kristin Dodson).
Toni Lachelle Pollitt, Nikkole Salter, Kristin Dodson.
Lawrence E. Moten III’s realistically detailed set places us in Mama’s kitchen, which has a small upstage staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms. It’s early in the morning and Mama, dressed in a turban-like headscarf and a floor-length house dress (costumes by Dominique Fawn Hill), is tending to the stew she’s preparing for the 50 people who’ll be attending an unspecified church event. Suddenly, a loud pop is heard outside, but Mama dismisses as probably from a tire blowout. 
Toni Lachelle Pollitt, Kristin Dodson, Nikkole Salter, Portia.
The noise brings into view Mama’s sleepy family, each wearing a similar headscarf, who soon enough begin to contribute to helping—with different levels of enthusiasm and ability—prepare the meal, while bickering mightily with one another. Personal details seep out slowly, many instigated by conversations on the wall phone, the time being in the pre-cellphone days.
Toni Lachelle Pollitt.
Mama’s having dizziness issues: “It’s nothing. It comes and goes.” Lillian’s in a difficult relationship with her husband, J.R. Her young son, Junior, is hanging out with a neighbor whose mother, claims the disgusted Mama, once opened her bag to offer her a mint only for roaches to come crawling out. Nelly is going hot and heavy with a boy she calls her “man,” not her boyfriend: “A boyfriend is temporary. A man is forever.” Lil’ Mama is auditioning for a school production of Richard III.
Toni Lachelle Pollitt, Nikkole Salter.
This last inspires a memorable scene, since each family member has participated in local theatricals. Mama, in fact, never tires of reminding everyone that she was “the founder and director emeritus of the Mt. Vernon High Dramatic League as well as the lead soprano at the Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church.” Lil’ Mama becomes the reluctant subject of Mama’s coaching her in a speech mistakenly attributed to Queen Elizabeth, when it’s actually Queen Margaret who speaks it. It's surprising no one's caught this.
The speech, in which a mother refers to her baby’s death, is used for comic effect but will later reverberate within the play’s thematic stew, like much of what we’re watching. Stew may seem like a conventional family sitcom—even with its outbursts of interfamilial vituperation—but it’s actually much darker, as represented by Avi Amon’s unsettling inter-scene music, and the hints dropped (too) subtly throughout, suggesting that perhaps the drama, for all its external specificity, is more metaphorical than naturalistic.
One senses this in the way the characters all seem to be reflections of one another, sometimes expressing themselves with phrases we’ve heard someone else use, the ways their personal stories mirror those of others, or even how their names intersect, as if they’re part of an unending cycle.

Unusually for a play about contemporary black characters, racial issues are not overtly foregrounded, but are embedded in the dialogue’s DNA. Everyone speaks in black dialect, even the self-aware Mama who nevertheless assumes grammar police authority when others misuse the language, such as saying “lay” when it should be “lie.”

On the other hand, her own words can be as colloquially ungrammatical as anyone else’s: “Lil’ Mama, that hair ain’t coming out them pins by itself.” So it’s sure to come as a surprise when, to cap the Shakespearean coaching scene, she delivers the speech in question with the piercing intelligence and sensitivity you’d expect from a seasoned classical actor. 
Most surprising, though, is the play’s ending, which subverts what we’ve been watching into a playwright’s head game. To say more would probably be unfair but this viewer was forced to return to the script to search for the clues that led to Howard’s conclusion.

Putting that stringy morsel aside, Stew offers an exceptional group of actors whose contributions are stirred by the masterful direction of Colette Robert. Taking full advantage of Zora Howard’s deliciously articulated sequences of overlapping speeches and simultaneous conversations, she has cooked up one of the season’s most nourishing thespian concoctions.

Portia, with a voice that could bring any stew to a boil, simmers with maternal power, compassion, sarcasm, and vulnerability as Mama. Pollitt’s salty Nelly, Salter’s bitter Lillian, and Dodson’s sweet Lil’ Mama are scrumptious portraits that, combined, create as close to an authentic family feeling as you’re likely to see on any local stage. You might want to taste this one while it’s still on the stove.

46 Walker St., NYC
Through February 22