Sounds of jazz, R&B, rousing up-tempo tunes and raise-the-roof ballads create the scene for “Grace,” a new musical slated for Ford’s Theatre from March 19 to May 14.
The production examines a history of African-American culinary traditions and the challenges Black-owned restaurants face.
Native Washingtonian Nolan Williams co-wrote the book and composed the music for the musical.
From his extensive creative works, local audiences know Williams from directing and producing the television special “Becoming Douglass Commonwealth,” the video advocating DC Statehood. His musical stage productions include “Stirring the Waters Across America” at The Kennedy Center and “Go, Tell It!” at Lincoln Theatre.
Influenced by the book “The Philadelphia Negro” by W.E.B. DuBois, the musical serves as a fictionalized story of a Black family that owned a successful restaurant and catering business in Philadelphia. The matriarch’s passing, family dynamics and gentrification put the future of the business in question. Beyond looking at the survival of the family business, the production digs deeply into Black food culture and cooking traditions.
Williams credits his mentor, the late Steven Newsome, with planting the seed for “Grace.” Newsome had a rich and respected history in developing African-American history and culture programs and institutions in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“I didn’t know the origins of foods like black-eyed peas, okra, watermelon or rice and how those crops are native to Africa,” Williams said. “As you trace these food traditions, they are parallel with the plight of Africans in America.”
There’s a small section about Black chefs in the DuBois’ book that further fueled Williams’ desire to move forward with the musical – a production that has been eight years in the making.
“The more I was nursing this history, the more the history was singing to me,” Williams said. “I did not set out to create a musical about Black food and traditions. I just followed my curiosity.”
Co-writer with Williams for “Grace” is OBIE-winning and Pulitzer-nominated writer Nikkole Salter. The production is directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming. The Ford’s Theatre production features David Hughey, Arica Jackson, Raquel Jennings, Rayshun Lamarr, Jarran Muse, Solomon Parker, Nova Y. Payton and Virginia Woodruff.
“Grace is ultimately a story about culture. It raises questions about how we preserve and honor culture and contemplates the myriad of ways in which culture is lost, disregarded or misrepresented,” Williams said. “Now, more than ever, this is an important conversation for us to engage in.”
For more information or for tickets, visit www.fords.org.