At some point in the past decade, the living-room play turned into the kitchen play. What we once used as visual shorthand for American domesticity—the couch—has become the kitchen table. Maybe it’s because the kitchen is where we talk (the couch is for Netflix); maybe it’s because playwrights have stopped imagining they could ever afford a parlor. If there’s a sofa in a new play now, usually it’s a satire about the upper crust. But when you enter the warm, well-used kitchen of Zora Howard’s STEW, with vegetables on the cutting board and a pot already bubbling on the stove, you expect something familiar in all senses of the word: ordinary, intimate, recognizable and—since we know why American playwrights have always been preoccupied with the nuclear unit—allegorical.
Howard, a writer who wears her literary seriousness extremely lightly, likes to tell you what she’s doing as she does it. So we pay attention when Mama (Portia), a materfamilias and prickly moral stickler, explains how to cook a stew. “What you’re waiting on is layers,” Mama says, “Each layer to settle down and the next one to stack on top of the one before it.” Howard’s first layer is domestic comedy, with Portia’s two daughters, 30-something Lillian (Nikkole Salter) and teenage Nelly (Toni Lachelle Pollitt), and Lillian’s preteen daughter Lil’ Mama (Kristin Dodson) all running afoul of Mama’s temper in gloriously tetchy ways. It’s very, very early in the morning, and there’s a lot of food to prepare—for some unnamed church function—and the women all keep stepping on one another’s ragged nerves. The younger ones all got up on the wrong side of the bed (a car blowing out its tire has startled them awake), and they’re begging to be allowed back to sleep. But “You know who else was tired?” Mama thunders. “JESUS.” A lot of the play’s comic texture is this sort of righteous smackdown: Portia has a way of looking under her eyelids that says she’s about to wield heaven’s holy hammer against someone snapping the beans wrong.
Secrets are boiling away, though, just like the stew. Howard’s second layer is the meaty stuff of melodrama. Where are the men in this world? They’re represented by the trouble they cause. The phone rings and rings, and the news is almost never good. The guys who call include Nelly’s boyfriend (“He’s not my boyfriend, he’s my man,” she tells Lil’ Mama) and Lil’ Mama’s father, who never seems to want to talk to Lillian; there might even be a Wells Fargo guy calling about Mama’s mortgage. The era is left deliberately a little vague, but certainly we’re not in the cell-phone age: Howard’s revelation-heavy dramaturgy would fall apart. For a long time, we’re kept busy unearthing the small tragedies under the comedy. We think we know what’s hidden, so we feel satisfied and even a little bored when we find each nugget—each pregnancy, each betrayal, each sorrow. It’s familiar stuff.
Director Colette Robert keeps the pace at a flat-out gallop, so it takes a while to realize that there’s another layer in Howard’s play. Existentially, something’s amiss. Why, for instance, do all the women have versions of the same name? Why do they fall into so many of the same patterns? Is their closeness genetic? Or is some other slippage happening—the traumas of generations actually fusing, somehow, into one another? Explanations bubble up, loops begin to close, but we’re out on the street outside the theater before they fully register. The shift in touch here is deft: Howard moves from broad strokes to ontological bewilderment almost before you know it. Moments from the middle of the play when Lil’ Mama was being coached for an audition for Richard III seem like clues. Richard was a master of misdirection too.
The new-play heroes at Page 73 Productions have fielded yet another handsome show, this one relying heavily on Lawrence E. Moten III’s set, which makes the little Walkerspace theater seem like it could actually contain a two-story house. Avi Amon’s clever sound design—outside noises and gospel songs on the radio—introduces capital-M Mystery on a subconscious level, long before the play itself gestures in that direction. Still, it’s the performances that you’ll remember. They’re all strong, from Dodson, practiced at eye-rolling suffering, to Pollitt, who manages to be a bratty 17-year-old while still hanging onto our sympathy, to Salter, who achieves a weary glamour in her pajamas and head wrap. But Portia is the jewel. During the Richard III coaching sequence, she stands on a landing as if it’s a royal balcony, declaiming a tortured, queenly eulogy from Shakespeare. The play hasn’t shifted at this point; we still think it’s a rollicking family entertainment. Yet out of nowhere, Portia summons up an entire tragedy. It’s a strange scene, in which one play seems to be trying to break through the one we’re watching. It’s also a precise fusion of performance and composition. Howard makes us hear hundreds of years of pain, knocking to be let in. And Portia—shaking with effort—is the door.
Stew is at Walkerspace through February 22.