By ANNE SIEGEL
The opening of Zora Howard’s Stew marks a return to the stage for one of Milwaukee’s longstanding companies, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. For the past 20 months, one of the loveliest theaters in the Midwest – the Cabot Theatre – has been dark. Actors, directors, technicians and others in the theater community wondered just when the lights would go on again.
Now the lights are on, but audiences are slower in returning. It was no surprise that many of the Cabot’s 360 seats were empty during some performances of Stew. Although that is disappointing, it is also understandable. Not everyone is ready to return to live performances, even with strict Covid procedures in place. Prior to entering the theater to watch Stew, audiences had to show a vaccination card or a recent negative Covid test.
Inside the theater, audiences were expected to mask up during the entire performance. Stew does not have an intermission, so there was no need to lower masks in order to eat or drink.
It’s a pity that more Milwaukee theatergoers (particularly those that fall into the category of “people of color”) weren’t flocking to see Stew. The title of Howard’s play is both literal and a metaphor for the emotions of three generations of Tucker women who have gathered in Mama’s kitchen. They spend an entire day preparing food for an unnamed event at Mama’s church.
Stew is a fascinating study of modern urban life and how one family adjusts to it. It contains sizzling dialogue and covers a wide range of subjects. No wonder the play was a 2021 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production is the play’s Midwest premiere.
Domestic Kitchen Scenes Are Tip of the Iceberg
As the play opens, faint rays of daylight pour through windows in the kitchen door (courtesy of lighting designer Colin Gawronski). As the sun continues to rise, one can begin to see the architectural features that distinguish Mama’s older home (set design by Em Allen). The worn-out kitchen is spacious enough to contain a square table and chairs, and this is a gathering point for the rest of the family. A small portrait of Jesus hangs near the kitchen door.
Mama (Olivia Dawson) is up first, and she makes a cup of tea while monitoring the pot of stew on the stove. A sudden shot in the stillness awakens the rest of this all-Black family. They rush down the stairs, still wearing pajamas. There are sisters Lillian (Krystal Drake) and Nelly (Sola Thompson), and Lillian’s daughter, L’il Mama (Malaina Moore). The ever-patient Mama calms them by saying that the noise must have been from a car backfiring. The girls are not convinced that it wasn’t something more ominous – perhaps the sound of a gun. But, soon they soon settle into their normal rituals.
Under Malkia Stamplay’s sensitive and tight direction, the women’s words begin to cascade over each other’s, as happens in many families. All of the actors find the necessary rhythms to make their voices heard through the din. Mama fails to keep a watchful eye over the pot of stew and loses her temper. She claims the stew is “ruined” and starts another batch. The girls disagree; they feel that the stew could have easily been reclaimed. But Mama’s opinion wins out, as it does for most of the conversations that take place on this day.
After a while, one suspects there’s more going on in Mama’s, Lillian’s and Nelly’s lives than is first apparent. Mama has a dizzy spell, and Lillian orders her to sit down (which Mama does for all of 10 seconds, before bolting upright to do food prep). There’s something mysterious about Mama’s doctor visits, which she doesn’t want to talk about. Meanwhile, Nelly takes a phone call from her boyfriend, and there’s a first-love crush in her voice. As for Lillian, a later phone call confirms that her husband is not going to attend the church event as planned. Lillian has dropped off her small son at a neighbor’s house and is waiting for him to come home before the event begins.
It’s difficult to discern exactly what the playwright is telling us about the absence of men in these women’s lives. It seems that knitting a family together falls to the females, whether they gather around a kitchen stove or sit in church pews. Although men are a regular point of conversation for the women, they do not show their faces throughout the play.
Eventually, a nosy Nelly finds out that Lillian is having an affair, which is the reason her husband won’t be joining them. Although details of the situation have been deliberately hidden from L’il Mama and her brother, the girl sums things up. She almost tearfully asks Nelly whether her mother and father – who may soon split up – will eventually abandon their kids? It’s a gut-wrenching moment, handled with skill and sensitivity by the two actors.
The family bonds continue to stretch throughout the day. A general lack of money becomes a point of contention especially for Lillian, who doesn’t see why her mother is responsible for feeding a crowd of, perhaps, 50 people at church. Without skipping a beat, Mama continues to cook. She sends her daughters to the store for provisions, and they can barely scrape together enough cash to pay for the meager supplies.
As Mama, Olivia Dawson excels as the matriarch of this family. She isn’t above guilt-tripping her daughters into paying more attention to their cooking chores and to her in general.
Auditioning for ‘Richard III’
In one of the best scenes, L’il Mama exclaims she’s going to audition for a part in a Shakespeare play in school. The women encourage her to practice in the kitchen, and they all vie for a chance to read another character’s lines. The adult sisters almost come to blows over this opportunity, but it’s Mama who spends the most time coaching the young girl. A raw yam substitutes for Queen Elizabeth’s baby, who has died at the hands of the king in Richard III.
As L’il Mama cradles the yam while reciting her lines, Mama repeatedly snatches the vegetable away from her. “You have to earn the right to this baby,” she says. L’il Mama tries harder, but she never really understands what Mama is saying. One aspect that’s true of this family is its generational pattern of girls giving birth as teenagers, and then suffering when the men leave home, or are killed.
(Note to readers: When a playwright inserts lines from Richard III into their work, things are not going to turn out well.) The actors playing Lillian and Nelly do a great job of their own “bad” attempts at reading Shakespeare’s lines. Finally, while standing above them on the stairs, Mama gives a knockout reading of the same lines. It is one more reminder that Mama has seen it all during her lifetime. She only hopes to spare her children and grandchildren from falling into the same traps.
Stew plays through November 7 at the Cabot Theatre. For tickets, contact the box office at 414-291-7800 or click here.