"Stew" at Dobama Theatre Delivers Laughs, and a Somber Meditation on Black Womenhood in America

A family learns how to cook, and how to live in a country drenched in blood

click to enlarge "Stew" at Dobama Theatre Delivers Laughs, and a Somber Meditation on Black Womenhood in America
Steven Wagner Photography

There are times when a work of fiction intersects with the real world in a telling manner. And such is the case with Stew by Zora Howard, now at Dobama Theatre.

On the surface this is an old-fashioned, kitchen sink-style play that takes place in the home of Mama, the Black matriarch of the Tucker family. And while there are many laughs throughout as Mama, her two daughters Lillian and Nelly, and her granddaughter Lil' Mama trade jibes and gripes, there is a somber undercurrent that ripples just under the surface.

As is their tradition, Mama is in the process of making stew for an annual church event, and she expects her entire family to pitch in. But almost instantly Mama notices two things: that Junior, Lillian's teenage son, is not around and she heard a loud bang coming from outside. And we also learn that Lillian's husband J.R. is also expected but has not yet arrived. Hold that thought.

In this 90-minute piece, we learn a lot about the Tucker women. We see that Mama is suffering from mild memory loss, tires easily and may have some other health issues. But she is still able to launch into breathless (and hilarious) rants as she catalogs her various and sundry torments. As Mama, Christina Johnson swerves gracefully from warm and supportive to pissed-off as she tries to herd her personal tribe of females into line.

Meanwhile, as the simmering stew is watched over by each of the women in turn, sometimes with less attention than required, their individual stories are revealed. Lillian (an excellent Maya Nicholson), intimates that her marriage to Junior is on the rocks while 17-year-old Nelly (Adrionna Powell) is in the throes of a romance with a "man" (not a "boy" friend) who she knows will be with her forever.

The 12-year-old Lil Mama (Logan Williams) is taught how to prepare stew while continually being ordered to do this and that by the older women, and she resists as much as she can. But when she mentions that she is trying out for a play at school, Shakespeare's Richard III, the play seemingly begins to stretch credulity. After all, what middle school would decide to produce a Shakespeare play, particularly that one?

As Lil' Mama starts to read (badly) from her section of the Richard III script, the other three all chime in, declaring their experiences as scholastic actors. Lillian and Nelly try their hand at it but are clumsy until Mama nails both the lines and the subtext in a part called a "mother's lamentation." And then it occurs that this play might not be as stylistically realistic as it seemed at the outset, but more shatteringly realistic in another sense.

Because on last Friday's opening night, the news broke that a Black man in Memphis, Tyre Nichols, never showed up for the dinner his mother had cooked because he had been dragged out of his car and beaten to death by five Black police officers. He died just 80 yards from his mother's house.

In this convergence of reality and art, Stew becomes a more powerful statement and meditation. Just as Mama teaches Lil' Mama how to cook for the family, all four women are teaching each other how to be Black women in a country drenched in the blood of so many innocent young Black men and women—a Shakespearian tragedy that is all too real.

While there are some flat moments in the play where lines aren't quite landed with the timing and punch required, the ensemble, under the precise direction of Nina Domingue, performs admirably.

Has something happened to Junior and JR? That question hangs in the air. And an ominous and borderline surreal final scene gives us the sense that the lamentations of Black women, and those who respect and honor their grief, goes on.

Through February 19 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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