A 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Zora Howard’s STEW, has reached the Pasadena Playhouse ready to feed at least 50. That is, if Mama’s burned stew can be salvaged. And how did an accomplished cook like Mama allow such a culinary disaster to happen? Was it that loud noise outside that made her forget about what was on the stove? Probably a tire blow-out – or a single shot? When STEW premiered on off-Broadway in January 2020, author Zora Howard never expected that this African-American family-style comedy would become a 2021 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Now this critically acclaimed play has arrived on the West Coast in 2023.
Jasmine Ashanti, Roslyn Ruff, Lisagay Hamilton, and Samantha Miller – Photo by Mike Palma
The time is early Saturday morning around the year 2000. The place is Mt. Vernon, New York – or a neighborhood like it. Mama (Lisagay Hamilton) got up before the crack of dawn to prepare her famous stew for scores of famished people at a big event at church. But that loud noise outside grabbed her attention, to the detriment of her planned menu. Now she must start over, with the often begrudging help of her family, including her two daughters, 30-year-old Lillian (Roslyn Ruff) and 17-year-old Nelly (Jasmine Ashanti) and her ‘tween granddaughter Lil’ Mama (Samantha Miller). Her son Junior, who never makes an appearance onstage, left for the store and hasn’t yet returned. As family members playfully banter back and forth, it quickly become evident that they are a warm and loving bunch who enjoy teasing and joking together – and that Mama can be a tyrant when she decides to take the reins.
When they find out that Lil’ Mama will play Elizabeth in an upcoming school production of “Richard III,” each has more than her two cents to contribute to the kid’s performance. It seems that all the ladies in the family were bitten by the acting bug in the past, especially Mama – “the founder and director emeritus of the Mt. Vernon High Dramatic League and the first soloist at the Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church for the past 15 years.” But these women share a lot more than love of theater. Fascinating – and even eerie – generational cycles are being repeated in this family; and they have led to long-held secrets which may finally see the light of day.
Kudos to Tyler Thomas’ skilled direction and her ability to keep things moving, yet casual, in this typical middle class home. Chopping vegetables at the kitchen table will do that. The talented cast manages to remove that invisible wall between audience and stage. The actors breathe life into Mama and her brood for the fly-on-the-wall audience. Initially, the play is very funny as these clever ladies engage in hilarious repartee which is clearly lock, stock, and barrel of their usual way of relating. With time, however, surprises may emerge which will rock their lives. Even trauma seems to work like glue to make their relationships closer and more intense. This is a family which audiences will love and laugh with – and also a family which will strike poignant chords in their own memories. What at first appears to be a comedy, often broad and backslapping, also holds deeper messages about life. AUDIENCE ALERT: At times, the action may be confusing; and you will sometimes need to “fill in the blanks.” Don’t worry. It’s worth it!
STEW runs through August 6, 2023, with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays. The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. Tickets start at $35. For information and reservations, call 626-356-7529 or go online.