From the opening harmonies in “Grace,” a world-premiere musical about the future of a family restaurant, I anticipated receiving a special treat. Blessings from everywhere rained down on the audience as we watched the tension increase between well-developed characters who delivered a storyline with some of the best music I’ve heard in a long time.
Nolan Williams, Jr. and Nikkole Salter serve as the writing team behind “Grace.” Williams also composed the music for the production which continues at Ford’s Theatre through May 14. As a musical theater nerd, I felt I’d been transported to heaven.
The setting for the play: Mintons, a historic Philadelphia family restaurant saddled with the challenge of keeping the doors open with problems that included mounting competition, changing customer preferences, higher operating costs and gentrification.
When Gran’Me, the family matriarch, dies, her loved ones gather to honor her. That’s when difficulties in maintaining the restaurant surface. Eight family members come together for a time of remembrance with just one family member, Ruthie, truly aware of the difficulties Gran’Me faced to keep Mintons afloat. Soon everyone realizes Mintons had been slowly sinking for quite a while.
Music and lyrics by Williams synchronized with the dialogue. Each cast member delivered upbeat, funny, heartbreaking and pointed lines. The singing from each actor showcased that they all have stellar vocal talent. When their voices blend as a chorus, I could hardly believe that just eight actors and not a more significant 20-person ensemble stood onstage.
In a word, the cast of “Grace” proved to be “powerful.”
Merging insightful, exciting musical compositions with multi-talented performers showcase what native Washingtonian Williams has achieved for decades.
“The auditioning process was two-fold,” Williams said. “We worked with Ford’s Theatre to identify talent in the region. We also had a casting director in New York, so half of the cast is from this region and half is from New York.”
The company of “Grace” features David Hughey, Arica Jackson, Raquel Jennings, Rayshun LaMarr, Jarran Muse, Solomon Parker and Virginia Ann Woodruff, in addition to Nona Y. Payton, a local veteran of the stage cast in the role of Ruthie. Ruthie must take the lead in carrying on the legacy and the burden of managing the restaurant, including staving off creditors.
Throughout “Grace,” Williams’ songs transition the mood and the dialogue between characters. A showstopper performance from Payton came with her rendition of the song “Again?” The audience felt Ruthie’s weariness – a result of the unyielding task she faced to keep Mintons going against all odds. I could hear sounds from audience members near me who seemed to feel Ruthie’s anguish.
A few moments later, after the ensemble’s exuberant singing of “The Gospel Bird (This Chicken Died),” the song would forever linger in my mind as “that chicken anthem.”
“Grace” serves as every family’s story. Compassion, arguments, crying, laughter and forgiveness illustrate what all families experience. Getting past idle chats to move toward more honest communication serve as the requisite task.
“I loved the way they wove the culinary traditions with family,” said Pam Moses, who lives in Bowie, Md. “Sometimes we can take different paths, yet we are still family.”
Maybe Broadway will soon be the destination for “Grace” – or at least it should. And Williams deserves much of the credit, if indeed in makes to the Big Apple’s “Great White Way.”
“I am always about doing work with a deeper impact,” Williams said. “Given where we are at this time in our world, a show that centers around family, love, legacy, culture and food really resonates.”