DC-based composer and lyricist Nolan Williams Jr. didn’t expect his next project to be inspired by black-eyed peas. But it was while thinking about his mother’s black-eye peas (she cooked them every New Year’s Day) when he realized the significance that the legume holds, not just in his family’s household, but in African American homes across the country. Williams—best known for composing the viral voting rights anthem “I Have a Right to Vote,”—began to delve deeper into African American culinary history, flipping through the pages of former Ebony food editor Freda DeKnight ‘s The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish and W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro. “I started thinking, there’s a story here that needs to be told” about African American food traditions.
Williams turned his newfound knowledge into GRACE, a musical that is coming to DC’s Ford’s Theatre (511 10th St., NW) in spring 2022 . The show captures a day in the life of the Mintons, a Philadelphia-based African American family that are reconnecting after many years to mourn the loss of their matriarch. On top of coping with their beloved Gran’Me’s death, the family must decide the future of its century-old restaurant. The production, directed by theater veteran Robert Barry Fleming, will feature original songs composed by Williams, with influences ranging from traditional musical theater and R&B to jazz and neo-classical.
Williams sees GRACE as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on Black-owned restaurants and honor the role that they’ve had in building and maintaining community. So, he engaged two of the most successful Black women in the culinary and entertainment industries to help him promote it. Celebrity chef Carla Hall and BET co-founder Sheila C. Johnson will serve as “culinary and hospitality ambassadors “who will raise awareness about production on and off the stage (Hall recently hosted a web series in which she talked to culinary historians about the show).
Like most recent shows, GRACE’s production was upended by the pandemic. The musical was originally set to premiere in March 2020 at Louisville’s Humana Festival of Plays. That was cancelled. Still, after a year of pandemic living, the themes of food and family seem especially relevant. And the show has gained lots of attention: from Ford’s Theatre, Broadway figures, and especially, the Black foodie community.
Williams sees the musical as a great way to celebrate the eventual comeback of in-person theater. “We could all use a little bit of joy and inspiration,” he says. “What better way to do that than by mounting a show that has great food, a great family, and a great set of family traditions?”