News & Politics

How DC Nourished a New Musical About Black Food Traditions

Even a pandemic couldn't derail "Grace" for long. Composer Nolan Williams, Jr., talks about how the show came together.

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

Grace the musical takes place in Philadelphia, but it grew—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) has nurtured his creative project as its iterations went to Cleveland, then Louisville, and landed back in the District to premiere 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 art-making that goes on in this city is world class,” Williams says. “It is most meaningful to be launching this here—home.”

The show, which opened in mid-March and runs until May 14, explores Black culinary traditions through the story of a family mourning a beloved matriarch and fighting to keep hold of a family-owned restaurant.

The show started as something of a musical research project, suggested by one of Williams’s close friends and mentors, Steven Newsome, the former director of the Anacostia Community Museum. “Once I started looking into the materials he shared, and then doing further research, I really discovered what I believe to be a unique perspective of American history through the lens of African American foodways,” Williams says. “Literally, the history just started singing to me.” He started writing songs inspired by sources like W.E.B Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro—which focuses on pioneering Black chefs’ early culinary establishments.

The next step for Williams’ work came through a collaboration with Robert Barry Fleming, then the director of artistic programming at Arena Stage. Fleming, who now serves as Grace’s director and choreographer, helped get the songs in front of 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. “We called it “A Date with 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 that project? What are you doing with it?’”

Over time, the project grew, changed shape, and moved around the country. It was workshopped 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 from the premiere—with cast, costumes, and crew ready to go—Covid hit, shutting down the entire festival. “It was surreal,” Williams says. “I came home early March from Louisville, and did something that folks who know me know is like the oddest thing in the world: I sat on my couch and binge-watched Netflix. I didn’t even have a Netflix account prior to 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 more than 30,000 people attended. That popularity prompted the team to continue the live chats, and the series went on to win Telly awards for Best Non-Scripted Online Series and Best Food & Beverage Online Series.

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

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

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

Still, Williams’s glowing description of his regular order at his favorite DC restaurant (Flower Child in Foggy Bottom, where he recommends the salmon, roasted sweet potatoes with bok choy, and broccoli with lemon sauce) casts just a tiny hint of doubt on his non-foodie status. And he has no trouble thinking of an all-time favorite food. “Just a good, plain, buttermilk pancake with amazing batter and the little crispy edges.” Food and family are tightly intertwined for Williams, just as they are for the array of cousins and siblings depicted in Grace. “My dad used to fix pancakes every Saturday. Saturdays were about cartoons and pancakes. I realized I can reconnect—my dad’s not with with us, but there’s something about it that just  reconnects me with the kid in me.”

Grace runs Monday through Saturday until May 14 at Ford’s Theatre (511 10th St., NW). Tickets are $22-$81.

Kayla Benjamin
Assistant Editor