Nolan Williams Jr. explores the intersection of African-American culinary traditions and theater in Grace
For years, Nolan Williams Jr. has explored the cultural significance of food in African American traditions. Combining this with his talent as a songwriter and lyricist resulted in his latest project, Grace, a musical that captures a day in the life of the Mintons, a Philadelphia family who come together to mourn the loss of their matriarch and wonder if their family restaurant has a future in their changing neighborhood.
Now, Grace will have its world premiere at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC with dates set for Spring 2022. The setting is a looping moment for Williams, Jr. who grew up in the capital performing in shows around town. “It’s funny how life has a way of preparing us, even when we don’t know we’re prepared,” says the composer.
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). Additionally, hospitality and entertainment mogul Sheila C. Johnson and Excellent chef alum Carla Hall joined Grace as hospitality and culinary ambassadors, respectively.
READ: Spotlight on Black Broadway Producers: Dale Mott
As to what the public can expect, Williams Jr. says “Grace offers an assortment of menu items – traditional, classical, jazz, R&B musical theater, moving ballads and inspiring music … much like a family potluck where everyone brings their favorite food to the meeting ”,
Created in 2016 during the 53rd Big Ball of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Grace hosted studio residencies at the New Ground Theater Festival in Cleveland Play House in 2017 and 2018 and at the Actors Theater of Louisville in 2020. The show was also an official selection for New American Plays’ 44th annual Humana Festival, but has been 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 theater make a perfect combination. For more information on Grace, Click here.
What do you think of the upcoming world premiere of Grace?
Nolan Williams Jr.: We are in a time when we need more light on African American culture and traditions, so it is deeply meaningful to stage a new musical that celebrates our love, our family and our traditions. These are aspects that are not always celebrated and yet, when lifted, they bridge cultural divisions.
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 of countless families who, like the fictional Minton family depicted in Grace, enjoy getting together to celebrate, to cry or just to be together. It’s a wonderful thing to raise, and a great counter-narrative to cultural stereotypes and assumptions.
What is the intersection of theater and food as you explore?
Drama is about storytelling, so is food, as evidenced by these lyrics from the show’s final song, “When Gran’Me Cooked:”
“And, oh, the many stories his food told with every plate /
Stories hindered not by rank or location
but epic stories of adventures near but far.
The way the show is structured, each song tells a story with minimal interstitial dialogue. And each story helps us learn a little more about the members of the Minton family. We are also exploring food as a means of connection. On the one hand, food is a powerful tool in bringing people together. On the other hand, it is a powerful way to connect the past with the present. Consider the recipes passed down from generation to generation. When the food is cooked and eaten, there is a real feeling that the ancestors are present at that time, in the cooking and the preparation, the participation and the sharing. There is something very mystical and very beautiful about it.
We explore food more as a metaphor – how food becomes related to status. There is a level of classism defined by food, even in different factions of a family. We see that playing in Grace with a character, EJ, who remembers going to college and trying to make ends meet with limited resources. He sings the song “Chicken Ramen Noodles and Cherry Kool-Aid”, and it’s not just about his limited resources, but the aspiration he has to one day be able to eat where he wants to, to go anywhere. a good restaurant where the maitre d knows his name, to dazzle his friends with his knowledge of how to pair good wine with good food. EJ highlights how food is often a status symbol and a metaphor for what we hope to achieve in life.
Where did your interest in the traditions and history of African American cuisine begin?
It started when I was working on another of my musicals, Christmas gift, at La Clarice. While developing this project, I discovered an African American first set of Christmas greetings and a culinary delight known as tea cakes. The history buff in me was really excited by this discovery and subsequently became curious about other aspects of our food history. During my research, I came across works like the one by WEB Du Bois The nigger of Philadelphia and Freda DeKnight’s A date with a dish. The more I delved into the story, the more it began to sing to me. Literally, I was writing music inspired by this rich history!
At first I thought it was a cycle of songs in the making. Over time, I realized that this project wanted to be a hybrid of a song cycle and a musical book that captures a day in the life of a reunited family after the loss of their matriarch, remembering the past in a way that creates joy even in the midst of deep sadness, 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 about a culinary ambassador being part of a creative team. How will the audience see Carla Hall’s work on and off stage?
Carla leaned into this project because her work and art as a culinary celebrity is built around the traditions that we sing about throughout this show. It is a natural choice 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 and Sheila’s connection to the show will help us amplify the message that there are Minton’s Places all over the country, little-known restaurants owned by African Americans, many of which have been passed down for at least a generation. In this time of COVID, we’ve seen a lot of attention drawn to restaurants that need help and attention. With Carla and Sheila, we hope the show can be a platform to amplify the stories of black chefs, black food traditions and these restaurants, so that the musical enhances life and culture beyond the stage. .