Ford’s musical ‘Grace’ is food for thought
What are the most important foods in your family? Are they the ones your grandmother made, the link to past generations or a world they left behind?
In my family, Yorkshire Pudding, a savory popover, declares, “This is a holiday; here is our family,” connecting us with our mostly forgotten English forebears.
In some communities, however, food, like other parts of culture, carries additional weight and emotion, in part because its values have been denied, its history devalued, and its very existence suppressed.
The world-premiere of the musical Grace celebrates the food of African American culture. At Ford’s Theatre through May 14, the musical is a feast for the ear, mind and, in a way, stomach. It’s a collaborative effort of award-winning artists with a commitment to community empowerment and social justice.
Grace was written by D.C. musician and composer Nolan Williams Jr. (music and lyrics) and OBIE award-winning playwright Nikkole Salter (book co-author), and is directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming.
Based on book by DuBois
Historian W.E.B. DuBois chronicled the achievements of pioneering Black chefs and caterers (described in the song “Bogle, Augustin, Prosser, Dorsey, Jones and Minton”) in his 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro.
In the musical Grace, these men are lifted up in song. Along with unnamed female culinary heroines, their images are emblazoned on the set as a mural on a wall of the Minton Restaurant, which carries on the proud legacy of chef and abolitionist Henry Minton.
The restaurant is a beloved community institution — or is it? When six of the family’s cousins gather to memorialize their recently deceased grandmother, known as GranMe, she had passed ownership of the restaurant to cousin Ruthie (Nova Y. Payton), who is hiding a secret.
Rayshun Lamar portrays future media mogul Joshua with charisma and vision as he skillfully introduces us (the audience is treated as his social media followers) to GranMe, the restaurant, and the cousins as he prepares to honor GranMe with the contemporary music he DJs and that she loved.
But Paul (David Hughey) scorns that music as not respectful or respectable enough, setting up an important theme in the musical: the conflict between preserving a suppressed cultural legacy and creating vibrant living traditions from what is also a rich cultural past.
This tension plays out musically in the song “Black-Eyed Peas,” when Lawrence, Ruthie, Jacqui and Joshua playfully compete with traditional and innovative black-eyed pea recipes for lucky cousin Haley to judge for inclusion in the memorial meal.
Themes of authenticity, erasure
Arts and entrepreneurship are also entwined for self-absorbed and well-connected Jacqui (Raquel Jennings). She spars with sibling Lawrence (Solomon Parker III) over the fate of a Juneteenth festival they created together.
Jacqui has successfully expanded the festival with corporate sponsorship, Lawrence, anchored in the local community and church, dropped out, protesting the festival’s loss of authenticity. As Lawrence, Parker dominates the stage whenever the spotlight settles on him.
The festival’s popularity is one of many signs, as Ruthie hints, that the restaurant’s woes are more related to the threats of erasure posed by gentrification than to any mismanagement on her part.
The show revolves around a culinary and cultural history that it cannot be taken for granted is known by the audience. This creates a dilemma: In addition to introducing the cast and relationships, the first half of the show must introduce us to pioneering forebears and emphasize the importance of foods in celebration and memory, as cultural expression, and in strengthening family bonds as well as explore the consequences of losing cultural goods.
The content is rich but shortchanges the acting of a highly accomplished cast with dialogue that is at times more utilitarian than revealing.
Standing ovation for cast
The songs fare better in showcasing the cast’s talent and humor. Ruthie’s fear of shaming GranMe leads to the heartbreaking and breathtaking “Again?,” which brought the audience to its feet.
As the musical progresses, it gains its footing and leaves behind exposition to luxuriate in the excellent singers flexing their skills in a wide range of musical numbers, joyous movement and, of course, the lure of delicious food in “Good Lawd Let’s Eat,” “The Gospel Bird (This Chicken Has Died),” and “Black-Eyed Peas.”
Virginia Ann Woodruff, as Miss Minnie, the new family matriarch, lovingly sings about what’s at stake in “Three Okra Seeds.” The song recounts how stolen Africans, forced to endure the Middle Passage, smuggled seeds to plant in “barren fields” sand create a “taste like home.” She’s already had to stop Joshua from tossing out the “pot likker” after boiling greens, so she knows that the young folk need plenty of education.
At the end of the performance, the audience is invited to rise and join in GranMe’s memorial from their seats. The ending brings us to Joshua’s big moment as musical director of the memorial.
The continuing clash between Joshua and Paul over appropriate music had piqued my interest. How would Joshua blend Nat King Cole with other music that shared little common ground?
Unfortunately, the musical denies us the pleasure of that resolution, which seemed a lost opportunity to highlight another fruitful way that Black art and culture span generations.
Grace is a musical love story to Black culinary history that leaves you hungry for more.
Tickets range from $22 to $81. The play is recommended for those age eight and older. Veterans, as well as patrons under 40 and over 60 may be eligible for discounts on certain performances. Concessions are not yet open.
Face coverings are required. Regardless of age, all patrons with tickets to in-person performances are required to show a government-issue photo ID and proof of full vaccination status or qualifying negative COVID-19 test upon arrival to their performance.
See fords.org/visit/covid-health-and-safety for details on COVID safety and test requirements.