In Stew, Something’s Wrong in Mama’s Kitchen

Ashanti, Ruff, Hamilton, Miller. Photo by Mike Palma.

With Stew, a new play at the Pasadena Playhouse, playwright Zora Howard draws on now-familiar tropes (introduced by August Wilson) to reveal mysteries concealed in a middle-class family in upstate, New York. The occasion?  An unspecified anniversary where Mama (Lisagay Hamilton) begins to prepare a stew to feed at least 50 people later at the church. But just as we, the audience, adjust to Mama’s rhythms in the kitchen, a lightning flash and a loud backfire upsets the routine.  We sense that not all is well.

Nonetheless, it’s all-hands on deck for this undertaking.  Eldest daughter, Lillian (Roslyn Ruff) has left behind her husband, J.R. in order to help Mama, while youngest, Lil’ Mama (Samantha Miller) intermittently fetches ingredients. Of Lillian’s two children, only daughter Nelly (Jasmine Ashanti) appears.  All are awaiting son, Junior, who is due back “soon.” 

As time passes, and Junior still does not arrive, we notice that the stew has been started over again.  As the carrots are chopped and the green beans fretted over, we glimpse the dynamics between Mama and her family as if in a sort of film-loop. It is this disquiet that creates the mystery at the center of Stew.  

Howard’s play was a Pulitzer prize finalist in 2021 and its inscrutability surely was part of its appeal. Unanswered questions abound.  The time period, purposely, is not specified, but Samantha Jones’ costuming hints at earlier times.  Another interesting take on the play comes from its asymmetrical setting (designed by Tanya Orellana), outlined in vivid neon.  Although it is possible to play to the audience in a traditional fashion, the angle itself sets our perceptions askew.  In addition, Elizabeth Harper and Yajayra Franco’s lighting goes from too low to blinding in ways that augment the meaning, if not our understanding.  Sound and composition by Elton Bradman augments all.

It’s important to see Stew with friends so you can spend a good amount of time afterward unraveling what you saw.

Stew continues Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm through August 5th at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. Tickets range from $35.  Available at the box office:  phone 626-356-7529, or e-mail