Shattered Globe Theatre’s Chicago premiere production of Zora Howard’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “STEW” opens with a woman (Mama, played by Velma Austin) turning on a kitchen radio and singing along with a Christian song while starting to cook the titular commodity, which she makes every year on this day for her church. The reason for the anniversary is never stated—though it is hinted at—but she is clear that this is the “one day out of 365” when she expects her whole family to be together to help her as she prepares a meal for fifty people. Suddenly, her focus is destroyed by a sound that could be a gunshot but that she decides was something else, and Howard’s examination of the interconnected generations of a Black family becomes something more.
The stew here is a real dish that she is cooking, but it is also a metaphor for the repetitious nature of life as these people experience it and, perhaps, for the entire Black experience in America. Mama and the women in her family—the men loom over the play like pushy ghosts but never make an appearance; this is definitely a women’s story—seem doomed to repeat the same patterns again and again, trying to make them better, knowing that the results will never change. Even the stew itself is started over three times during the play as errors in judgment and execution result in its becoming burned. Over and over and over, in various ways, the women’s lives become echoes of each other, both in positive and negative ways. This odd sense of deja vu often spills into the dialogue, with Lillian frequently asking “Where’s Junior?” even though she says she knows that her son is with a friend, and Mama bluntly stating, “I’ve been making this stew since the beginning of time.”
The acting here is uniformly excellent, anchored by Austin’s domineering Mama, who is showing signs of dementia—we are told she drifts in and out, and we witness some odd behavior—but still maintains her vicelike grip over her little world. Her daughters, the frustrated 30-something Lillian (Jazzma Pryor) and the absolutely-certain-she-is right-because-she’s-seventeen Nellie (Jasmine Cheri Rush), are every bit as strong, as is Lillian’s twelve-year-old daughter, who is called L’il Mama (Demetra Dee, convincing us that she’s an actual middle schooler). There are plenty of secrets these women are keeping, which provide plenty of opportunity for each of the actresses to shine, and they do.
The action, realistically and briskly directed by Malkia Stampley, all takes place in the kitchen, which is of course the center of Mama’s world as well as the room where the three generations of women socialize, argue, and laugh. The set, by Sotirios Livaditis, is a realistic recreation of the kitchen area of a middle-class home. Its fringes suggest living spaces beyond this room—we see the edge of a family room, stairs going up to a second floor, etc.—but this kitchen is clearly the beating heart of the house. Nothing else comes close to it in importance. In this room, Mama does her magic at the stove. In this room, Lillian and Nellie—though more than half a generation apart in age—act out sibling rivalries. In this room, some secrets come out and some are never discussed.
STEW is a realistic family drama with some wonderful comedic flourishes, but there are aspects of it that, if you really think about them, don’t seem to make a lot of sense. One of these is a key comic scene involving L’il Mama auditioning for a school play, Shakespeare’s Richard III, in which she wishes to play Elizabeth, whose two sons Richard has murdered. On the one hand, Dee does a wonderful job of portraying a pre-teen with no acting experience struggling to make meaning of the Bard’s complicated structures. On the other hand, it turns out that all three of the other women in this family are thoroughly familiar with the role, also seemingly having played the same part in school. Seriously? Richard III, a saga of greed, war, lust, revenge, and murder, as a go-to theatrical experience in middle school? One that is produced four times inside of a generation?
It does set up some wonderful moments of bonding between Mama and L’il Mama as the elder woman tries to help her granddaughter learn how to add “umph” to her line readings as well as another bit in which Lillian and Nellie, shouting over each other, try to add their own thoughts and ideas. And it ends with an almost surrealistic moment in which Mama delivers this monologue about dead babies elegantly, befitting her status as the “founder and director emeritus of the Mt. Vernon High Dramatic League as well as the first soloist at the Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church, lead pastor Reverend Winston Rice, for the past 15 years.” More importantly, though, buried in this broad comedy is the universal truth that darkness—and even death—too often haunts male members of Black families. As Mama recites a monologue that she logically shouldn’t even be able to recall after so many years, there is real pain in Austin’s voice and in her eyes. Mama doesn’t merely know the words; she understands the emotional truth behind them.
As we learn more about this family and their lives, the uncanny valley keeps reasserting itself: something is not quite right here, and it goes beyond a bizarre and inexplicable choice of Shakespeare play for 7th graders. Like the stew itself, events in this family’s journey seem to weirdly repeat themselves. All of the women have similar struggles. Pregnancies occur at the same age. Marriages break down at the same age. Men don’t last forever, despite Nellie’s certainty that her high school-age “man” will take care of her “forever.” And neither Junior nor Lillian’s husband JR is present for the important annual stew-making.
There is a scene at the end of STEW that changes our perception of everything we’ve watched for the previous ninety minutes and makes us question the play’s reality and wish we could question our own. Howard here has done a remarkable job of portraying both the love and the pain these women share: two sides of the same coin, two bowls of the same stew. And the nagging feeling we have at the end is the desperate wish that things could be different.