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Interview: Composer Nolan Willams, Jr. talks this weekend's 'Christmas Gift!'

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"Christmas Gift!," a Christmas musical steeped in rich history of African American tradition will be performed this weekend at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland campus Friday, December 13 and Saturday, December 14.

In an interview, conductor and composer Nolan Williams, Jr. talked about the origins of "Christmas Gift!"

Last year’s Christmas Gif! was primarily a concert production. The concert was inspired by a book given to him by his friend and mentor Steven Newsome, former head of the Prince George’s Arts and Humanities Council, who passed away unexpectedly last year.

Nolan Williams, Jr.: “When I got the book from Steven, I was like ‘oh man this is really amazing.’ The book was a collection of stories, songs and poems in the African American tradition all about celebrating an African American holiday traditions basically. In the spirit of how the book was structured, I basically put together this concert, where you had music punctuated by poetry, punctuated by other kind of readings and some dance, really eclectic, all under the theme of "Christmas Gif" and that was really successful. We got great responses from the audience.”

Those returning to see "Christmas Gift!" this year will see an enhanced performance.

Nolan Williams, Jr.: “I started thinking after last year that there’s such a compelling story here relating to the history of "Christmas Gift!" It seemed like the next move for this is to really tell that story in a way that captures the history, but also is entertaining and forms a plot or storyboard that connects from start to finish. I got busy working on that after last year and the result is that this year it is a completely different project with a larger cast and the storyboard that includes this history. It really almost centers around a central figure who is a young female and her journey to learn more about herself and to discover more about her heritage. So it’s really exciting to see how everything has taken shape this year.

How did you come up with your cast for the production?
Nolan Williams, Jr.:
“We did casting calls. Casting calls and in some instances there were persons that we knew about in different arenas and we were able to go, I know this person is a great fit for this. It was a mix of terms in how we pulled it all together.”

How did your collaboration with the Clarice Smith Center come about?
Nolan Williams, Jr.:
“My company, NEWorks has been really blessed to be a community partner with the center. I’m very excited about the Clarice Smith Center and the work that they’re doing. They make storytelling such a central part of their programming and they feature storytelling in so many different diverse ways. So this was a partnership that just makes sense. The work was developed especially for them and this year as the work has expanded. It is again a singular kind of piece that will be premiered there at the Smith Center and developed in partnership with them.”

Do you eventually plan to take “Christmas Gift!” elsewhere?
Nolan Williams, Jr.:
“We are interested in developing some kind of broader footprint for the show over the next couple of years but we see the Smith Center as a home for the show in this area and think it’s an exciting thing that’s being birthed here in this area in Prince Georges County and Washington, DC, by extension. There’s so much talent in this area and particularly given the demographics of Prince Georges County it just makes sense that a work that is unique like this that celebrates African American history culture would emanate from this area.”

You are quite busy and earlier this year you went overseas.
Nolan Williams, Jr.:
“I led a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department to Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan we went to really foster better relations that was our aim. I took a small cadre of singers. I have a group, Voices of Inspiration, so I took a small number of those singers there and we interacted with folks there in Egypt, as well as folks from other countries around the world. It was an amazing experience and we were really grateful to be a part. Of course, right after we got back the whole incident occurred at the U.S. Embassy and it’s really amazing. You go and you feel like you make progress and then something happens, you feel like two steps forward three steps back. That’s such a vital work that needs to continue.”

Where do your gifts come from?
Nolan Williams, Jr.:
“Ultimately from God. I’m clear on that. I’m from a family with a lot of talent and I feel like I’m an heir of just tremendous talent pool. My great-aunt was a very established musician and was head of the music for the women’s auxiliary of the national Baptist convention for many years, and worked along many of the greats. There’s a lot of persons in family that sang or played or somehow connected. I actually had a cousin who was a vaudeville star. So it’s interesting how those genes just kind of have a way of coalescing at the right time and I’m really blessed. I’ve been very fortunate and I spend my days doing what I love doing and that is leveraging the power of music. My company NEWorks Productions, we believe in the power of music and the arts to really transform our community and so we work on projects that have some kind of meaning or resonates some type of message that will help people to think better, know better or live better.

We are really fortunate to partner with amazing organizations like the Clarice Smith Center that gets it; that understand the importance of music and the arts and that commit their resources to doing the same thing. Our world would be a really bad place without the arts and we can never forget that. We should never lose sight of that. It’s really important that we are always committed to producing art that will potentially improve the quality of life for individuals and for our communities.”

What else are you working on?
Nolan Williams, Jr.: “One of the really exciting things that is happening is NEWorks is partnering with the Mann Performing Arts Center in Philadelphia. We have been working with them for the last 8 months to develop what is being called the Philadelphia Freedom Festival. It’s a celebration of early activist and civil rights pioneer Octavius Catto. He was a Philadelphian who was just an amazing renaissance man and worked along with Frederick Douglass. There will be a series of events over a 7 month period from January through July in Philadelphia. It will culminate with a major concert in Philadelphia.

What can audiences expect at the performances?
Nolan Williams, Jr.:
"Christmas Gift" is going to be a wonderful experience of celebrating selfless giving, the importance of love, of remembering history of a people who were brave enough to love, daring to love, even amid the most unimagineable social experience of being enslaved. These persons still found a way to give to one another on Christmas day when they had nothing to give and yet they created a gift and they gathered gifts, they found a way to affirm each other’s humanity even when on so many levels they were being told that that they were even less than human.

It’s such a powerful narrative, a powerful story and it has great relevance, especially for our young people who have so much more now. They have so many avenues, they have so many resources, they have so many opportunities and yet they don’t always appreciate what they have so sometimes it’s important to frame where we are in the context of where we’ve been in order to better appreciate who we are and the potential that we have individually and as a community. Those kinds of themes I think have resonance even beyond one person or one community they’re broad and universal themes. I think everyone can reflect and think that a story relating to Christmas is empowering a person should leave there ready to find a way to better impact the earth the earth and the persons around them for the better.”

Tickets for "Christmas Gift!" are $35/$10 (Regular/Students), and can be purchased online or by calling (301) 405-ARTS (2787).

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