Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of The Merchant of Venice
Nolan Williams Jr. wrote the music and lyrics, co-wrote the book with Nikkole Salter, and acts as musical director. He has done extensive research into the pioneering Black chefs who took food and cultural elements dating back to Africa and created something that would endure into the future. The issue is that he seems to want to include every possible element he can cram into a single 100-minute story.
The setting is the courtyard outside Minton's Place, a century-old African-American restaurant in a gentrifying neighborhood of Philadelphia, brought to life by Jason Ardizzone-West's richly detailed scenic design. The time is shortly after the death of the restaurant's longtime owner and chef, known as Gran'Me to her family, as her closest relatives gather for a memorial service and celebratory meal–and realize how distant they have become from each other.
Ruthie (majestic Nova Y. Payton) took over the kitchen from her grandmother 10 years ago, but times and tastes are changing and the restaurant is facing financial troubles. She is one of seven far-flung cousins with differing agendas, from DJ and social media influencer Joshua (Rayshun LaMarr) and community outreach worker Lawrence (Solomon Parker III) to Paul (David Hughey), an academic; Jacqui (Raquel Jennings), who works in corporate sponsorship; resentful Haley (Arica Jackson), who stayed in the neighborhood; and EJ (Jarran Muse), whose branch of the family moved away and who criticizes traditional African-American cooking for its high fat and sodium content. Gran'Me's sister Miss Minnie (Virginia Ann Woodruff) represents the older generation.
Just listing the characters shows the issue: too many cooks with competing recipes–er, issues. (Also, it appears that the cousins are all members of one generation. Where are any of their parents, Gran'Me's children?)
That said, Grace provides a lavish serving of both food for thought and food for the soul, and Williams' score is generous and flavorful. Stylistically it ranges from Miss Minnie's remembrance of African cooking ("Three Okra Seeds") to Paul's history of the city's African-American culinary ancestors ("Bogle, Augustin, Prosser, Dorsey, Jones and Minton") and a rapturous a cappella grace before the meal, plus Ruthie's arias and a knockabout dance number celebrating chicken wings (choreographed by Fleming).
Grace also benefits from character-defining costumes by Dominique Fawn Hill, mood-sensitive lighting design by Xavier Pierce, layered sound design by David Budries, and Nikiya Mathis' inspired hair and wig design. Paul Byssainthe Jr. deftly conducts eight musicians from the keyboard.
Grace runs through May 14, 2022, at Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-347-4833 or visit fords.org.
Music and lyrics by Nolan Williams Jr.
Paul: David Hughey