Ford’s Theatre presents world premiere musical ‘Grace’ on Black culinary tradition

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Grace' (Part 1)

The Black culinary experience transcends taste buds to pass down family traditions.

Ford’s Theatre presents the world premiere of “Grace” from March 19 to May 14.

“It’s a seminal day in a family, the Mintons, who have lost their matriarch,” Director Robert Barry Fleming told WTOP. “It’s a family who has over a 100-year culinary tradition of African American food, gathering for this celebration of life of their Gran’Me. … It’s a project borne out of a real investigation in culinary traditions; how much that represents culture.”

Created by renowned D.C. composer Nolan Williams Jr. and Pulitzer Prize nominee Nikkole Salter, the musical was originally performed in the 53rd Grand Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity in 2016, followed by workshops at the Cleveland Play House in 2017 and 2018, then the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky in 2020, before coming to Ford’s.

“Nolan is extraordinary,” Fleming said. “His range of musical vocabulary, the number of genres, and his expertise as someone who was trained at Oberlin [College] and has a deep rooting in all kinds of music, from gospel to R&B to neoclassical, has made a real palette that I think folks will just be really stunned by as a storytelling vehicle for this particular show.”

The most powerful musical number is probably “Three Okra Seeds.”

“It lives in the tradition of a great ballad,” Fleming said. “African American food traditions are borne out of even the Middle Passage, the narrative of three okra seeds clutched in a former ancestor’s hands, brought with her [on a slave ship]. Although she had no clothes, no pockets, she clutched those in her hands so she could plant them in the New World.”

The other big number is the grand finale “When Gran’Me Cooked.”

“It’s always been one of those deeply moving songs that speaks to a larger reality of when someone offers their specific gift,” Fleming said. “When she cooked, there were things we understood about her majesty, about her love, about her care. … It all happened in the kitchen … understanding how many layers are in the preparation, the care, the ritual.”

The outdoor urban restaurant is brought to life by scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West.

“It really is quite elegantly designed,” Fleming said. “This environment of the restaurant harkens to the extraordinary public art movement [in] Philadelphia … an extraordinary mural program that beautifies the city. One of the murals has made it to Minton’s Place as Gran’Me’s lasting legacy to really venerate and honor the legacy of the restaurant.”

The production marks a grand reopening at Ford’s Theatre after COVID-19 cases dropped since the arrival of the omicron variant.

“Come on out and hear this exceptional music, this exceptional talent,” Fleming said. “You won’t regret it.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Grace' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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