DC composer to launch musical about African American culinary traditions at Ford’s Theater
DC-based songwriter and lyricist Nolan Williams Jr. didn’t expect his next project to be inspired by black-eyed polka dots. But it was when he thought of his mother’s blackeye peas (she cooked them every New Years Day) that he realized the importance of the legume, not only in his family’s home, but in Afro homes. – Americans across the country. Williams, best known for composing the viral voting anthem “I Have the Right to Vote,” began to delve deeper into African-American culinary history, flipping through the pages of the former Ebony food editor Freda DeKnight’s The ebony cookbook: a date with a dish and WEB Du Bois’s The negro from Philadelphia. “I started to think, there is a story here that needs to be told” about African American culinary traditions.
Williams turned his new knowledge into GRACE, a musical set to arrive at Ford’s Theater (511 10th St., NW) in the spring of 2022. The show captures a day in the life of the Mintons, an African-American family based in Philadelphia who reconnect after many years to mourn the loss of their matriarch. In addition to facing the death of their beloved Gran’Me, the family must decide the future of their century-old restaurant. The production, led by theater veteran Robert Barry Fleming, will feature original songs composed by Williams, with influences ranging from traditional musical theater and R&B to jazz and neo-classical.
Williams sees GRACE as an opportunity to shine the spotlight on black-owned restaurants and honor the role they have played in building and sustaining the community. So, he hired two of the most successful black women in the culinary and entertainment industries to help promote him. Celebrity chef Carla Hall and BET co-founder Sheila C. Johnson will serve as ‘culinary and hotel ambassadors’ who will raise awareness for production on and off the stage (Hall recently hosted a web series in which she spoke show to culinary historians).
Like the most recent shows, GRACE’Production has been disrupted by the pandemic. The musical was originally slated to premiere in March 2020 at the Humana Festival of Plays in Louisville. It was canceled. Yet after a year of the pandemic, the themes of food and family seem particularly relevant. And the show garnered a lot of attention: from Ford’s Theater, Broadway characters and especially the black foodie community.
Williams sees the musical as a great way to celebrate the eventual return of theater in person. “We could all use a little joy and inspiration,” he says. “What better way to do that than by putting on a show that features great food, a big family and a big set of family traditions? “