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This DC Composer’s Musicals Celebrate the Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Multitalented composer and director Nolan Williams Jr.'s new project premieres at the 19th Street Baptist Church on October 12.

Photo courtesy of NEWorks Productions.

Growing up, DC composer and director Nolan Williams Jr. and his two sisters had a weekend routine. Every Saturday, their mother would surprise them with an activity, anything from carnivals to concerts at the Kennedy Center. As a child, Williams studied dance recitals and musicals, building a repertoire across mediums that would later inform his own work. “In so many ways, I am this hodgepodge of all of this, all of these experiences that were a part of my upbringing,” he says.

Williams has channeled these varied passions into a catalogue that spans genres and manifests in two new projects this month. Ethereality: Celestial Dreams and the Great Beyond on October 12 is an orchestral concert conceived and artistic directed by Williams. The show, presented with the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Center for the study of African American Religious Life, features works by contemporary black American composers and poets alongside spirituals, exploring the intersection of science and spirituality.

Later in the month, on October 27, he’ll workshop Stirring the Waters Across America, at the Reach at the Kennedy Center, as part of its new Social Impact Residency. The show is a multimedia production telling the stories of the Civil Rights movement through dance, spoken word, and music.

“I sign every email with the phrase, ‘Onward and upward,’ ’cause that’s just my personal mantra,” says Williams, who is sitting on the mezzanine of the Mayflower Hotel, wearing grey pants with a blue button-down, his headphones wrapped around his collar. “And it’s both this driving force for me, but it’s also a daunting challenge, because I’m usually never satisfied with whatever has occurred. I’m quick to go, ‘Okay, that’s done. What next?'”

Williams was born in Los Angeles, and moved to Northeast DC in what is now Eckington (“Listen, when I grew up, every neighborhood didn’t have a name,” he says) when he was four years old. His grandfather and his father were both Baptist ministers, and he grew up hearing music at church. His great-aunt, Daisy Young, was an accomplished music teacher, and after Williams began playing piano by ear, with some help from his mother, his aunt came to his house for half-hour lessons on reading sheet music.

He fell in love with classical music after hearing George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” on a transistor radio in Fredericksburg, where his father was a pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church. “I thought this was the most beautiful music I had ever heard in my life,” says Williams, singing a couple bars of the score. “I was probably eight, and I was moved to tears by this music.”

Williams was writing his own songs all along, but got serious about it after graduating from Oberlin College. He wrote music for his classes, but he saw those compositions more as homework assignments than passion projects. Once he left and moved back to DC, he started writing songs he identified with. “Something just started to click, and I started realize, ‘Oh, I have something to say, musically.'”

So he fashioned a mic for himself. After a stint at Howard University’s divinity school, in 2003, Williams started his own company, NEWorks Productions, which acts as a conduit for Williams’ varied visions. Since its founding, NEWorks has produced concerts and shows in partnership with the Kennedy Center, Georgetown University, and the Washington National Opera, among others. Williams has worked with heavyweights like Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson during the Kennedy Center’s annual Let Freedom Ring! tribute concert to Martin Luther King Jr., which NEWorks has music produced since 2003, and the company offers educational programming for young artists. That spirit of community engagement is at the core of NEWorks’ mission.

“I’m not just trying to put out art for the sake of entertainment, but I want art that is connected with social good,” says Williams. “So, I really recognize a civic responsibility here to use art in a way that speaks the same way Stevie Wonder was speaking to his time, the same way that Leonard Bernstein was speaking.”

Photo courtesy of NEWorks Productions.

That idea is evident in his most recent productions. Earlier this month, his musical Devine Hamer Gray, a work still in progress, premiered as part of the March On Washington Film Festival. The show tells the story of three black women who ran for Congress in 1964 and almost beat the Mississippi congressional delegation. The story has been reported, but remains a singular and overlooked moment in Civil Rights history.

Nova Payton, who played Annie Devine, says they had very little rehearsal time, but Williams’ drive helped the show come together. “Once he puts his mind to [something], it’s like, you can forget about it,” she says.

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Payton, who has a long list of stage credits in the District, met Williams more than a decade ago, when he was the music director at Metropolitan Baptist Church in its old location on R Street, NW. A mutual friend called Payton in to sing at a sunrise service on Easter Sunday, and she was struck by Williams’ ability to articulate his ideas. “He’s someone who really knows what he wants and knows how to explain what is and to pull it from you,” she says. “He knows how to work through songs with you and how to help you to complete that journey.” They’ve worked together consistently ever since.

With Ethereality later this week, Williams is drawing on all his inspirations, from gospel and classical music to theology, to explore the way we relate to the universe. “In the African cosmology, there isn’t the rigid kind of division between sacred and secular,” he says. “That’s a very Western concept, but it’s interesting to see movement now that I think has always been a part on some levels of the African diaspora, of seeing God in mystical terms. Not just in literal terms, but seeing God as being present in forces of nature.”

What better place to consider such questions than at the historic 19th Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in the city? In one part of the show, the songs are organized by the theme of dreams, from those awakened to those lost. Eventually, with persistence, the cycle ends with hope renewed. It’s a sequence he can relate to in his own life as an artist, from the excitement of an initial idea to the sometimes disheartening challenge of executing it. “But then theres’s, like [the feeling of], ‘Gosh darn it, I’m going to stick with this and figure out some way,'” he says. “I’m gonna persist until I figure out some way.”

“Ethereality: Celestial Dreams and the Great Beyond” is at 7:30 PM on October 12 at the 19th Street Baptist Church, 4606 16th St., NW; Free. “Stirring the Waters Across America” is at 2 PM on October 27 at the REACH at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW; Free.

This post has been updated to reflect NEWorks role in Let Freedom Ring! and Williams’ correct title at Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Nathan Diller
Editorial Fellow

Nathan is an editorial fellow at Washingtonian. Originally from Nashville, he graduated from Columbia Journalism School with a master’s degree in 2019. His work has also appeared in SPIN, NYLON, and Nashville Lifestyles.