Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

Also see Scott's review of Peter Pan

Michelle Shay
Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Stew, Zora Howard's 2021 Pulitzer Prize-finalist play, might at first appear to be a latter-day kitchen-sink drama. In its current production by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, it is indeed set in the comfortable, cluttered kitchen of the Tucker home, warmly designed by Richard H. Morris Jr. There's an island with a built-in range, currently topped by a sizeable stock pot and surrounded by a numerous ingredients for a stew that's in progress. Mama (Michele Shay) is busying herself with food prep and listening to an early morning religious program on the radio.

A loud noise from outside startles her and brings downstairs two more generations of the feisty Tucker family: Mama's daughters, Nelly (Maliyah Gramata-Jones), age 17, and Lillian (Shayna Small), in her 30s, as well as Lillian's adolescent daughter Lil' Mama (Sydnie Brown). They are an outspoken quartet, each full of opinions and humorously expressed attitudes. So kitchen-sink drama is not the right category for Howard's play, nor is it a sitcom.

In truth, Stew is a complex drama and intergenerational study. Each of these Black women is more complex than might appear at first glance. Thanks to the steady hand of director Stori Ayers, each portrait is more fully revealed, including secrets simmering longer than the stew on Mama's stove. Nevertheless, while these characters are Black, their story has a universal quality that goes beyond ethnicity–not that it's absent. When Mama says, "I don't like being late," Lillian responds, "You always late." Mama rationalizes, "Don't tell me I'm always late. I'm always held up is what it is."

But the friction between these family members is readily relatable: A domineering mother in denial about her health, sisters with an age disparity and relationship challenges they've kept from Mama, and a teenager who's sassy and sensitive (and an aspiring actor). Lil' Mama's audition for a role in Shakespeare's Richard III puts her on the firing line for some unwanted coaching by everyone else.

However, listening closely to her struggle with a speech by Queen Elizabeth mourning the murders of her children, Howard's craft is impressive. Lil' Mama stumbles on Shakespeare's word "lamentation," and as Mama presses the aspiring young woman to understand the lines she's struggling to memorize, we recognize that this speech has painful relevance to Mama. She gives the girl a baby to hold–it's actually a sweet potato–and while amusing, it's clear there's considerably more to this exchange than appears at first glance.

In fact, Stew has a plotted circularity that becomes increasingly evident as several circumstances around motherhood, marriage, and the relationships between mothers and children bubble up like tidbits in the stew that continues to cook on the stove. (Sound designer Jeff Gardner's slowly rising background effect of bubbling and boiling is a subtle reminder of the rising fury in the tumultuous interactions between these women.)

Each character playwright Howard has devised is distinctively defined physically and emotionally. Lil' Mama at first just seems a sullen teen who can barely tolerate her bossy mother: Ordered to locate Mama's purse or some cash in Lillian's laundry, Lil' Mama stomps noisily up and down the narrow steps. Nelly seems hyper-confident that she knows where her life is headed, and she is weary of being the family member saddled with keeping an eye on her mother who seems to be slipping. But she's facing a decision that she's not well equipped to handle and she knows she needs guidance. Lillian's marriage is evidently coming apart at the seams, but she's trying hide it from her mother and her daughter. When Lillian finally confesses, she is surprised by Mama's candid reaction that she too had a challenged marriage.

Each actress in Stew ably inhabits her role. Brown gives Lil' Mama just the right amount of sensitivity and frustration; she's great fun to watch, but we see how she knows more than the lets on. Gramata-Jones gives Nelly a façade of bravado, but it doesn't take long to discover how she's headed for trouble and knows it. Small's Lillian strives to be the sensible oldest daughter, but she's constantly put off by Mama, sassed by her sister, and pressed for answers she doesn't want to share by Lil' Mama.

As Mama, Shay puts on a tour-de-force performance. In her first scene, she hums along to "This is the day the Lord has made" on the radio and then erupts about a noisy neighborhood dog. "Imma kill that dog. I swear to God I am ... Imma cut it up and cook it." She's quick to correct grammatical transgressions and pass judgment on others' decisions and behavior, but when she and Lillian confront one another, she shares her own story then cuts loose with a string of four-letter words. Lillian is astonished before they dissolve in laughter. This turn-on-a-dime characterization is a rare quality in an actor, and Shay delivers it with skill. She handles Stew's final moments of searing realization with physicality rather than text: Shay is more than up to the task.

There are moments in Stew that feel slightly predictable, but this cast repeatedly makes it real and meaningful.

Stew runs through April 7, 2024, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mt. Adams Circle in Eden Park (adjacent to Mt. Adams), Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-421-3888.