For years, Nolan Williams Jr. has been exploring the cultural significance of food within African American traditions. Combining that with his talent as a composer and lyricist has resulted in his latest project, Grace, a musical that captures a day in the life of the Mintons, a Philadelphia family who gather to mourn the loss of their matriarch and consider whether their family restaurant has a future in its changing neighborhood.
Now, Grace will have its world premiere at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. with dates set for spring 2022. The setting is a full circle moment for Williams, Jr. who grew up in the capital performing in shows around the city. “It’s funny how life has a way of preparing us, even when we don’t know we’re being prepared,” the composer says.
The musical will be directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming and is produced by special arrangement with Dale A. Mott and his company, Edgewood (Lifespan of a Fact, Thoughts of a Colored Man). In addition, hospitality and entertainment mogul Sheila C. Johnson and Top Chef alum Carla Hall have joined Grace as hospitality and culinary ambassadors, respectively.
As for what audiences can expect, Williams Jr. says “Grace offers a smorgasbord of menu items—traditional musical theatre, classical, jazz, R&B, moving ballads, and music with inspirational overtones...much like a family potluck where everyone brings their favorite dish to the gathering,”
Originally performed in 2016 during the 53rd Grand Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Grace held workshop residencies at Cleveland Play House’s New Ground Theatre Festival in 2017 and 2018 and at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2020. The show was also an official selection for the 44th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Check out a Q&A with Williams Jr. below to learn more about the musical’s structure, its inspirations, and why food and theatre make a perfect combination. For more information about Grace, click here.
How are you feeling about the upcoming world premiere of Grace?
Nolan Williams Jr.: We are at a time when we need more light shed on African American culture and traditions, so it’s profoundly meaningful to bring to the stage a new musical that celebrates our love and family and traditions. These are aspects that aren’t always celebrated and yet, when they are lifted, they bridge cultural divides.
I firmly believe that it is through exposure that we come to understand who a person is, how they live, and what they value. I know countless families that, like the fictional Minton’s family depicted in Grace, value coming together to celebrate, to mourn, or just to be together. That’s a wonderful thing to lift up, and a great counter-narrative to cultural stereotypes and assumptions.
What is the intersection of theatre and food that you’re exploring?
Theatre is about storytelling, and so is food, as reflected in these lyrics from the show’s finale song, “When Gran’Me Cooked:”
“And, Oh, the many stories her food told with every plate /
Stories hindered not by rank or place
but epic stories of adventures close but far away.
So far away.”
The way the show is structured, each song tells a story with minimal interstitial dialogue. And each story helps us to learn a bit more about the members of the Minton family. We’re also exploring food as a means of connection. On one hand, food is a powerful tool for bringing people together. On another, it is a powerful means for connecting past with present. Consider recipes handed down from generation to generation. When the food is cooked and eaten, there is a real sense of the ancestors being present in that moment, in the cooking and preparation, the partaking and the sharing. There is something very mystical and very beautiful about that.
We’re further exploring food as a metaphor—how food becomes connected with status. There is a level of classism that is defined by food, even in different factions of a family. We see that play out in Grace with one character, EJ, who reminisces about being away at college and trying to make ends meet with limited resources. He sings the song, “Chicken Ramen Noodles and Cherry Kool-Aid,” and it’s all about not just his limited resources but the aspiration he has of one day being able to eat wherever he wants, of going to a fine restaurant where the maître d knows his name, of dazzling his friends with his knowledge of how to pair the right wine with the right meal. EJ spotlights how food is often a symbol of status and a metaphor for what we hope to attain in life.
Where is the genesis of your interest in African American food traditions and history?
It started when I was working on another of my musicals, Christmas Gift, at The Clarice. In developing that project, I learned about an early African American Christmas greeting game and a culinary delicacy known as tea cakes. The history buff in me was really excited about this discovery and subsequently became curious about other aspects of our food history. During my research, I came upon works like W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro and Freda DeKnight’s A Date with a Dish. The more I delved into the history, the more it started singing to me. Literally, I was writing music inspired by this rich history!
At first, I thought this was a song cycle in the making. Over time, I have come to realize this project wants to be a hybrid of a song cycle and a book musical that captures a day in the life of a family reunited over the loss of their matriarch, reminiscing about the past in a way that creates joy even in the midst of profound sorrow, against the backdrop of an uncertain future for their century old family restaurant given the restaurant’s rapidly-evolving neighborhood.
You don’t often hear of a culinary ambassador as part of a creative team. How will the audience see Carla Hall’s work on stage and off?
Carla has leaned into this project because her work and her artistry as a culinary celebrity is built around the traditions that we’re singing of throughout this show. It’s a natural fit for her to be an ambassador because the themes of Grace inspire who she is and what she does.
Same thing with Sheila C. Johnson, our hospitality ambassador, who embodies the spirit of women entrepreneurs, like our main character, Ruthie.
Carla’s and Sheila’s connection with the show will help us to amplify the message that there are Minton’s Places all across this country, unsung African American–owned restaurants, many passed down at least one generation. In this time of COVID, we have seen a lot of attention drawn to restaurants that are in need of help and attention. With Carla and Sheila, we hope the show can be a platform to amplify the stories of Black chefs, Black culinary traditions, and these restaurants, so the musical will enhance life and culture beyond the stage.