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Theater Review: Stew

Greta Oglesby in Stew at Ebony Rep. Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography.

Powerful theater takes an audience from viewers to participants, lifting us out of our seats and lowering us into the action onstage. We become family members, co-workers, involved and caring advice givers, mystery solvers.

Powerful theater—like Zora Howard’s Stew, now playing at Ebony Rep—cuts to the quick because it is heartbreakingly specific and soaringly universal. Whether or not the scene we find ourselves embedded in is familiar, its emotions tie us to our own life experiences and we cannot help but relate.

The Ebony Rep team, including pitch-perfect director Jade King Carroll and a superb cast, take Stew to the highest level. The four women—a matriarch, her two daughters, and a granddaughter—are fully formed, their inevitable dramas tempered by their dreams and strengths.

The play opens and closes with Mama (the awe-inspiring Greta Oglesby) in the kitchen making her famous stew for a church event. She’s singing along to gospel on the radio and complaining about a neighbor’s barking dog. In between are four fully lived lives and an entire world.

Greta Oglesby and Nedra Snipes in Stew. Photo by Criag Schwartz Photography.

Daughters Lillian (a convincingly conflicted Roslyn Ruff) and Nelly (a beautifully intense Nedra Snipes) are goaded into support roles, then their every action criticized. This is obviously a familiar scenario, one that has played out for decades. Lillian takes all she can, and finally pushes back, her heartbreaking response a highlight of the play.

Mama wants to believe her grown children are still hers, but their lives outside the kitchen are out of her control. Her attempts to treat her daughters as if they are a stew she is cooking (“Keep an eye on your pot”) does not pay off.

Granddaughter Lil Mama (the charming and energetic iesha m. daniels), an aspiring actress, reveals she has an audition for the role of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare’s Richard III. The line readings and commentary combine to reinforce the emotional force and subtle power behind Shakespeare’s characters and the women in the kitchen.

Men are unseen but significant presences, both as family (husband, grandson) and lovers requiring some stewing about. The women are troubled, in part because of the menfolk, in part because of their own personalities. Mama in particular is prickly, defensive about any suggested shortcomings but quick to find fault with others.

Despite the drama with the younger generations, this is Mama’s show. She harangues, gives order and holds court, filling the kitchen and the stage with her presence and wrath when things don’t go as she wishes. She is eternally in charge, not giving her offspring breathing room to think for themselves.

Scenic designer Mike Billings has created the ideal kitchen for this moving and flavorful drama. The production team works at the highest level to deliver the ideal environment for the emotional stew that is Stew.

Stew runs through March 24 at the Ebony Rep Theatre’s Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd, West Adams. Tickets are $35-55 and are available here.

Greta Oglesby, Iesha m. daniels, Roslyn Ruff and Nedra Snipes in Stew. Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography.
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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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