Wednesday, January 1, 2020
By Hannah Natanson | The Washington Post
On the first day of the third decade of the 21st century, Nolan Williams Jr. stood beneath the silver-rimmed portrait of his late father and raised one palm for silence.
Bowing his head, Williams asked the dozen friends and family gathered around his mother’s dining room table in Northeast Washington to join hands. He thanked God for the year that had passed, for the year to come and for the food they were about to eat.
Then his eyes fell on the pinkish-beige mound of comma-shaped beans in the white bowl.
“And we will all,” he said, glancing toward his mother, “try black-eyed peas.”
Eyes shut, she nodded. Williams lowered his voice to add: “Whether we like them or not.”
Their battle is ancient, familiar. Every New Year’s Day for the past half-century, Gloria Elaine Johnson Williams has risen early to slow-boil black-eyed peas in a pot filled with water, vegetable oil and a dusting of salt. Come late afternoon, she has summoned her family to the table and insisted: Everyone must take a bite.
“God’s blessing comes with black-eyed peas,” said Gloria Williams, who long ago stopped revealing her age. “You just have to have a taste.”
Her son remembers delivering a decisive verdict at 3 years old: Black-eyed peas were “mushy stuff,” impossible and inedible, no matter what his mother said. Now 50, Williams — a celebrated composer and producer — has turned the family feud into fodder for a new musical, “Grace,” centered on the history and legacy of African American culinary traditions. It’s the fourth musical created by Williams, a D.C. native who has pursued an eclectic career spanning ministry, orchestra conducting and music production for television, among other things.
“Grace,” directed by Robert Barry Fleming, will debut in March at the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville. It details a day in the life of the Mintons, a fictional African American family in Philadelphia who come together to mourn the passing of their matriarch, a woman who held the clan together partly through her culinary talents. As the family grieves her loss, they must also decide the future of their struggling restaurant, which they have owned for more than 100 years.
The Mintons are loosely based on Williams’s own family, he said, and there are some direct overlaps: various shared dishes and traditions, including eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.
The most important commonality is the way food — its preparation, its consumption — enables the family to be resilient in the face of racism and oppression.
“Looking at our history, there’s such a vital connection between the food that we’ve eaten and the resourcefulness we’ve had to have in this country,” Williams said. “For example, just consider black-eyed peas!”
No one really knows how or why people began eating the peas — which are actually beans — on New Year’s Day, or why they’re supposed to bring luck, Williams said. And the custom is not unique to African Americans.
Gloria Williams said she is unsure who started her family tradition.
“My grandfather did it, and my great-grandfather did it,” she said. “And so I do it.”
Still, her son’s careful research over the past several years — much of it undertaken for “Grace” — unearthed one, possibly apocryphal, explanation.
The theory dates to late in the Civil War, when Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman swept his troops on a month-long march through the South, leaving behind death, devastation and destruction. Sherman’s soldiers burned homes, plundered farms and picked over fields for the best crops.
That much is undisputed, Williams said — but here legend takes over. Apparently, the soldiers left behind at least one foodstuff: black-eyed peas, which they considered fit for consumption only by farm animals.
“And so, for a while, this is all black folk had to eat,” Williams said. “We as a people were eating what was meant for livestock, but we managed to create recipes and inventive approaches to cooking them, such that they became a delicacy.”
Williams’s interest in African American culinary history — and his path to producing “Grace” — began about a decade ago, when a friend gave him a book about African American holiday cuisine. Williams brought the book home and, busy with other projects, promptly forgot about it.
He didn’t pick it up again until about a year later, idly curious. It was a fateful reading choice: Williams has not put the book out of his mind, not really, ever since.
“It led me down this really rich path of looking at food and food traditions,” Williams said. “And then, a couple years on, I thought: ‘Hey, what if this could be a play?’ ”
As “Grace” germinated inside his head, Williams plunged into further research. He ordered books, consulted chefs and professors, pored over historical writings — especially the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose sociological study “The Philadelphia Negro” proved a key inspiration. Soon, Williams learned to distrust the stereotypical depiction of African American soul food.
It’s not all fried chicken and collard greens, Williams said. He pointed to “A Date with a Dish,” one of the first published African American cookbooks, written by Freda DeKnight in 1948. She had crisscrossed the country, visiting tiny kitchens and harvesting recipes from aging mothers and grandmothers.
“What she discovered was that what black folk were eating in this country, mid-20th century, was as vast as you could imagine,” Williams said. “You have everything,” ranging from Swedish meatballs to ham hocks to pasta.
“Grace” attempts to reflect that culinary diversity. It makes reference to all kinds of soul food, Williams said, “especially the things the audience won’t expect.”
The unveiling of history, the discovery of unknown dishes and traditions — it was all thrilling. But something was off.
In early iterations, “Grace” felt less like a musical, Williams said, and more like “an epic historical treatise.”
Around then, he met with a friend, Pulitzer-nominated playwright Nikkole Salter, and asked her advice. She replied with a question that stunned him: “What is this show revealing about yourself?”
After a moment, he started babbling about the characters, but Salter stopped him. Williams recalls exactly what she said next: “Nolan, whatever we write, whenever we write, it is somehow a reflection of ourselves.”
So Williams thought back to his own family, to his own childhood in the District, spent in the same house where his mother lives today. (His father died 12 years ago.) He remembered the family dinners, always held in the kitchen, always featuring excellent food.
His parents split the cooking evenly. His father, a pastor, fried fish on Fridays and woke early every Saturday to scrape together pancakes, often from scratch. His mother, a kindergarten teacher, developed expertise in tamales, sloppy Joes and yams.
“My husband,” Gloria Williams said, “we worked together as a team.”
The couple always joined forces to prepare turkeys on Thanksgiving and Christmas, Williams said, roasting a bird so tender it fell apart at the mere brush of the knife. Per family demand, his mother still bastes a turkey every holiday season.
As the memories surged, the musical changed.
“It became this opportunity to take a few steps back, reflect upon my own history, my family’s history, and to see it in this larger context of black history in this country,” Williams said. “It is deeply meaningful to recognize we are part of a continuum that is vast, that is greater than us, greater than ourselves.”
He paused. “How often do we get a chance to really reflect deeply upon our lives?”
On Wednesday, he offered his mother, family and friends an early version of his musical. After everyone finished eating, Williams sat down at his childhood piano, the one he first played when he was 4 years old. His mother perched a few feet away on the edge of a couch.
A close friend, professional singer Nova Payton, picked up sheet music and belted two numbers from “Grace.” She sang about food and family, love and loss.
Back in the dining room, a pile of black-eyed peas sat, untouched, on Williams’s plate.
(photo above) Gloria Renee Bland, left, and Gloria Marie Bland cheer as they feed Gloria Ellis Faye Graham, 14 months old, black-eyed peas for the first time, prompting her to smile and clap. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)