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The older you get, the more deaths you know. So says Miss Minnie, the direct but wise sister of the deceased in the new musical ‘Grace’, which premieres at Ford’s Theatre.
With music and lyrics by DC’s Nolan Williams, Jr. and a book co-authored by Williams and Nikkole Salter, it’s an upbeat exploration of African-American culinary tradition and the challenges facing business black-owned, as experienced through Philadelphia’s personal lens. Minton family.
For the Mintons, death has come for Gran’Me, the matriarch who has held the reins of the family’s century-old restaurant for 40 years. With his passing, the Minton’s Place monument goes to his granddaughter Ruthie (Nova Y. Payton). But ownership comes with a host of problems, especially staying financially afloat in a changing neighborhood where convenience stores are being replaced by dog spas and soulless developers are on the rise.
Ruthie de Payton is a revelation. Transparently and subtly, she exudes a truthful blend of concern, strength, and unsuccessfully concealed worry. And every night, Payton deservedly receives a mid-show standing ovation for “Again,” a powerfully sung promise to muster the courage to endure.
The action takes place on an autumn day in the outdoor courtyard of the restaurant. A glowing Miss Minnie (Virginia Ann Woodruff) and Gran’Me’s adult grandchildren have come to prepare for the memorial. No two are alike – for example, Paul (David Hughey), who has a Ph.D. and lives away from home and rarely visits, takes an interest in the restaurant’s cultural significance while local DJ and social media maven Joshua (Rayshun LaMarr) is eager to remember his grandmother in his own way – but ultimately food, memories, and a respect as the family brings the disparate cousins together.
Nimblely directed by Robert Barry Fleming, the 90-minute production without intermission moves at a pleasingly brisk pace. In addition to Payton, there are seven other talented actors in the cast, all of whom have wonderful voices and can play the lighthearted and poignant moments effectively.
Williams’ impressive score played by an eight-person pit orchestra uses the varied sounds of jazz, R&B, soul, Broadway and spirituals to explore life and culture. Its music and production design nods to black history.
The Minton family is part of a glorious dark culinary past that stretches back generations, and is so briefly explained in “Bogle, Augustin, Prosser, Dorsey, Jones & Minton.” This quick musical reference to family history and the series’ oddly abrupt ending are weaker elements in a mostly strong piece.
Set designer Jason Ardizzone-West’s lookalike set makes splendid use of Ford’s stage – a pared-down cluster of outdoor tables and chairs backed by an ominous urban mural featuring the headliners of the early Restoration.
For the Mintons, food means comfort, sustenance and pleasure. As Haley, Arica Jackson shows off her comedic chops as a cousin who rightly feels neglected and no doubt loves to eat. Jackson fervently sings “The Gospel Bird (This Chicken Died)”, a heartfelt tribute to the feathered friend who died so she could live.
Other melodies praising the family’s relationship with food include “Good Lawd, Let’s Eat”, “Black Eyed Peas”, and “Three Okra Seeds”.
While Haley loves Gran’Me’s cooking, her enemy cousin EJ (Jarran Muse) isn’t so interested. Raised in an affluent suburb by parents with very ambitious goals, he rarely frequented Minton’s Place. At the memorial, when asked to run to the store to pick up turkey necks to cook with greens, he is totally baffled. Still, EJ’s memories of his grandmother, his food, and the old neighborhood are fond.
Low-key siblings Lawrence (Solomon Parker III) and self-proclaimed Afro-bohemian chic Jacqui (Raquel Jennings) regularly clash over vastly different ideas about community organizing. She is willing to use any means necessary, corporate or otherwise, to promote change, while he remains more loyal to longtime residents.
But, more and more, it looks like the rifts are being healed by Miss Minnie. Though forgetful and not ready to fill her dead sister’s formidable shoes, Minnie expands on the importance of food and family.