Key ingredient in Ebony Rep’s STEW? Family!


She’s equal parts Mildred Pierce, Julia Child, and Danai Gurira. She’s in her muu-muu with house slippers. Her hair is wrapped, and she’s cooking. She’s Greta Oblesby, playing “Mama,” in a marvelous, alive production of Zora Howard’s Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted play, STEW. Newly produced by Ebony Repertory Theater and directed by Jade King Carroll, it’s now on at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.

In my humble opinion, Oblesby, a wonderful actress, is a key reason (there are others) to get on down to the Holden and see STEW. She stands at the play’s moral center, but does not trod heavily on that privilege. She’s one of a tight ensemble in this insightful four-woman show, letting her three fellows (iesha m. daniels, Roslyn Ruff, Nedra Snipes) get their two-cents in as well. For this play is about family, where, as we all know, it often takes a can opener linked to a megaphone to get heard.

“Mama” is Mildred Pierce for playing the all-suffering mother in a drama that concerns moms, daughters and daughters’ daughters. She’s Julia Child, because she knows that food is love, and while nattering with her mishpochah she’s preparing a big old pot of it to take to a church gathering. She’s Danai Gurira (the Zimbabwe-born actress who played Richard III in the Public Theater’s Central Park production in 2022) because Zora Howard’s script indeed includes a play within a play, by referencing Shakespeare’s depiction of the villainous hunchbacked king — and Howard quotes from the text, delivered by Mama in a kitchen soliloquy.

That borrowing from the Bard is but one of the marvelous engagements with spoken word audiences will enjoy in STEW. The body of the play is a sing-song verbal parrying in African American vernacular — to include grammar fixes, talking atop of one another, some voices raised, others sotto voce. Staged in designer Mike Billings’ cozy set, STEW is also a prop-parade (oversight of myriad cooking utensils by designer Aaron Lyons) with an emphasis on colorful mixing bowls that carry the components that, mushed together, create a stew. As the four women do their food prep there is a level of bossing around that would make my Jewish family jealous. Everybody bosses everyone. It’s fun, but it carries an edge that hurts. On this verbal cushion, the entire production floats. Just two drawbacks, sound projection seemed uneven. And costumes miss. Despite calling for pajamas and house-wear, they were not flatteringly fitted, nor did they move well; and they detracted from a visual whole. That is an easy fix.

I loved the show, enjoyed its characters and its actors, and think the Holden and its resident production house, Ebony Repertory Theater, provide the perfect house for Zora Howard’s home.

Arts journalist Debra Levine celebrated fifteen years of fine-arts blogging on arts●meme in 2023.

STEW | Ebony Repertory Theatre, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center | thru March 24

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