How DC Nurtured a New Musical About Black Food Traditions

Carla Hall and Nolan Williams, Jr. Photograph by Marvin Joseph, courtesy of Grace the Musical LLC.

Grace the musical is set in Philadelphia, but it’s grown from an idea to a collection of songs to a 95-minute musical here in DC. Over the course of more than seven years, composer Nolan Williams, Jr. (who has lived in the city since age 4) nurtured his creative project as his iterations traveled to Cleveland, then Louisville, and landed in the district for the first. as a musical at Ford’s Theatre.

Photo by Marvin Joseph.

“I love my city and I love the community here and the people, and the artistic creation that takes place in this city is world class,” Williams said. “It’s very meaningful to launch this here at home.”

The show, which opened in mid-March and will run until May 14, explores black culinary traditions through the story of a family mourning a beloved matriarch and fighting to keep a family restaurant alive. .

The show began as a sort of musical research project, suggested by one of Williams’ close friends and mentors, Steven Newsome, the former director of the Anacostia Community Museum. “Once I started looking at the material he shared and then continued my research, I really discovered what I think is a unique perspective on American history through the lens of African-American eating habits. Americans,” Williams said. “Literally, the story just started singing to me.” He started writing songs inspired by sources like WEB Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro– which focuses on the early culinary establishments of pioneering black chefs.

The next step in Williams’ work came through a collaboration with Robert Barry Fleming, then director of artistic programming at Arena Stage. Fleming, who now serves as thanks director and choreographer, helped introduce the songs to their first audience – a huge crowd of women associated with one of America’s oldest black fraternities, Sigma Pi Phi, which held its biennial gathering in DC in 2016. a dish,” and we ran with it, and the ladies loved it,” Williams says. “So much so that some of them are still connected, like ‘what’s going on with this project? What are you doing with it?

Over time, the project grew, changed shape and moved across the country. He worked twice at Cleveland Play House, and OBIE award-winning actress and playwright Nikkole Salter joined the team. Then Grace was selected for the 2020 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky.

Two weeks after the premiere – with the cast, costumes and crew ready to go – Covid hit, shutting down the entire festival. “It was surreal,” Williams says. “I got back in early March from Louisville and did something that people who know me know as the weirdest thing in the world: I sat on my couch and binge-watched Netflix. I didn’t even have a Netflix account before that.

Still, Williams and co-producer Dale Mott quickly pivoted, launching a live chat called #ByGrace exploring the show’s themes with celebrity chef and DC resident Carla Hall. They were shocked when over 30,000 people attended. This popularity prompted the team to pursue Live Chats, and the series won Telly Awards for Best Unscripted Online Series and Best Food and Drink Online Series.

“We started getting the attention of nice people in the culinary industry, people in the Broadway community,” Williams says of the web series. “The community started to lean in, and that really helped us bounce back.” In April 2021, Ford’s Theater announced that it would host the show’s premiere in 2022. Prior to the start of the run, the show held two invitation-only industry presentations in New York City.

The web series #ByGrace was a networking megaphone, and its six episodes, all of which released in 2020, ultimately reached over half a million viewers. Guests like actor Brian Stokes Mitchell and award-winning James Beard food historian Jessica B. Harris chatted with Williams and Hall about everything from culinary communities to cast iron skillets.

Hall and Williams were also chatting outside of the webcast. They both live around Takoma Park and both have wandered around the neighborhood during the pandemic. Despite his friendship with the chef and his own catchy songs about okra and chicken wings, Williams says he’s “not really a foodie.” At a press dinner held at Michele’s, a swanky French restaurant near Ford’s, Williams could be spotted passing an untouched plate or two to Hall, who now works with Grace as its culinary ambassador.

Still, Williams’ glowing description of his regular ordering at his favorite DC restaurant (Flower Child in Foggy Bottom, where he recommends the salmon, roasted sweet potatoes with bok choy, and broccoli in lemon sauce) just throws a little hint of doubt about his non-greedy status. And he has no trouble thinking of an all-time favorite food. “Just a good plain buttermilk crepe with amazing batter and crispy little edges.” Food and family are intertwined for Williams, as are the array of cousins ​​and siblings depicted in Grace. “My father used to make pancakes every Saturday. Saturdays were for cartoons and pancakes. I realized I could reconnect – my dad isn’t with us, but there’s something about it that reconnects me with the child in me.

Grace runs Monday through Saturday through May 14 at Ford’s Theater (511 10th St., NW). Tickets cost between $22 and $81.

Kayla Benjamin