The musical theater industry hopes to recover as the pandemic subsides.
Ford’s Theatre is excited for the world premiere of “Grace” in Spring 2022.
“It’s a day in the life of a Philadelphia-based African-American family,” Creator Nolan Williams Jr. told WTOP. “They’ve come together to mourn the loss of their matriarch, affectionately known as Gran’Me. … This amazing family who’s had a long and storied connection with African-American culinary traditions.”
The idea for these ingredients came to Williams Jr. while staging “Christmas Gift!” at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“I started unearthing history connected with tea cakes and other delicacies,” Williams said. “I came across W.E.B. Du Bois’ research on early pioneering chefs in his book ‘The Philadelphia Negro.’ I unearthed Freda DeKnight’s first African-American cookbook which became ‘The Ebony Cookbook.’ … The history literally started singing to me.”
So, he began churning this culinary history into various musical styles.
“‘Grace’ offers a smorgasbord of menu items, from traditional musical theater to classical jazz to R&B to inspirational ballads, there’s something for everyone,” Williams said. “It’s a pretty eclectic musical palette, which reflects the diversity of my own musical background.”
The most powerful number is the song “Three Okra Seeds.”
“There’s a lot of lore in our community about how these foods made their way from Africa to America,” Williams said. “In this family, there is this lore, this myth that the first Gran’Me when she was being brought here forcibly, she managed to grab three small okra seeds, clench them in her fist and carry them with her across the Middle Passage.”
The songbook continues with the mouth-watering “Potlikker.”
“‘Potlikker’ is based on this tradition of the juice we cook greens in,” Williams said. “Once the greens are cooked, that which is left over is literally the juice or the ‘potlikker.’ The argument is that the potlikker is extremely nutritious because the longer you cook the greens, the more the minerals in the greens actually end up being reduced into the juice.”
It all builds to the grand finale “When Gran’Me Cooked.”
“Honoring the tremendous legacy of women, especially, who have been purveyors of our food traditions, who have held our families together through their food, through their love,” Williams Jr. said. “Every plate of food holds a story. When we cook recipes that have been passed down, the act of cooking and partaking connects past and present.”
It will be directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming at Ford’s Theatre.
“It’s a very meaningful spot to bring it, particularly at this time when we need to shed more light on African-American culture,” Williams said. “What better place than Ford’s, given its history, particularly its connection with Lincoln. I love the idea of being able to bring this story home, because D.C. is home to me. To premiere it here is just so meaningful.”
The musical was originally performed in during the 53rd Grand Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity in 2016, followed by workshops at Cleveland Play House in 2017 and 2018, then Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky in 2020. It was selected by the 44th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays but was sadly canceled due to COVID-19.
“We are delighted to present this exciting musical,” Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault said. “Ford’s Theatre has been the birthplace of more than 35 world-premiere plays and musicals since our 1968 reopening. We’re especially eager for audiences to come together and experience this joyful music and story of resilience, remembrance and the food that ties us to community.”