Composer Nolan Williams, Jr. Talks "Grace" the Musical at Ford's Theatre
This winter we spoke with D.C. composer Nolan Williams, Jr., about his process for creating the musical Grace, which debuts at Ford’s this spring. Learn more about this world premiere that celebrates African-American food, family and tradition.
Ford’s Theatre: How did the idea for Grace come to you?
Nolan Williams, Jr: The idea for Grace was first sparked when I was developing my musical, Christmas Gift. … I learned about an early Christmas greeting game and an African-American culinary delicacy known as tea cakes that were a part of this early tradition. The history buff in me was really excited about this discovery and subsequently became curious about other aspects of our food history. During my research, I came upon works like W.E.B. du Bois’s classic, The Philadelphia Negro and Freda DeKnight’s pioneering cookbook, A Date with a Dish. The more I delved into history, the more that history started singing to me. Literally, I was writing music inspired by what I was learning!
Ford’s: So, how did it start?
Wiliams: Initially, I thought I was creating a musical revue. Over time, I have come to realize this project wants to be a book musical capturing a day in the life of a family reunited over the loss of their matriarch, facing the challenge of what to do with their century-old family restaurant in a rapidly evolving neighborhood. Hopefully, all of us can draw inspiration from this story, seeing ourselves in the characters and venerating the matriarchs who have shaped our values.
What real-world inspirations did you have for the musical’s characters?
Wiliams: Our characters’ family name Minton is inspired by Henry Minton, one of the pioneering chefs [that W.E.B.] du Bois highlights in his book, The Philadelphia Negro. The characters themselves are inspired by the rich spectrum of African Americans, a reflection of my own upbringing and circle of friends.
Ford’s: How would you describe what audiences will experience in seeing Grace this spring?
Williams: Grace is ultimately a story about culture. It raises questions about how we preserve and honor culture and contemplates the myriad of ways in which culture is lost, disregarded or misrepresented. Now, more than ever, this is an important conversation for us to engage in.
Sonically, Grace will feel much like a family potluck where there’s such a variety of offerings, there’s truly something for everyone. … The show takes place in the courtyard of the family restaurant, Minton’s Place. The set will feel like “home” and all our characters like extended family members.
Ford’s: And those themes of family dynamics are, of course, universal.
Williams: … In the true spirit of family, [audiences] will see that everybody doesn’t get along. But through it all, love endures.
Ford’s: How has the musical evolved with your writing team?
Williams: I am thrilled to be reunited with the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Nikkole Salter (In the Continuum, Torn Asunder) who is co-authoring the book with me. We have such a symbiosis when we collaborate. Our work is an endless pursuit of dramatic questions that deepen the journey of our characters and enrich our story.
Ford’s: What do you hope audiences take away from the experience of seeing Grace?
Williams: As the tagline for the show asserts, we all need a little bit of grace, especially in these times. Hopefully, being more mindful of our own need for grace will spark empathy and make us more inclined to extend grace to others.
Learn more about the world premiere of Grace online.
Lauren Beyea is Associate Director of Communications and Marketing.