Songwriter and music producer Nolan Williams Jr. had been thinking for several years about creating a holiday show.
But when his mentor, the late Steven Newsome, gave him some books about African-American Christmas traditions, he knew exactly how to proceed.
“It’s an Afro-centric approach to the celebration of the holidays,” says Williams, who is premiering his production, “Christmas Gift!: A Celebration of African-American Holiday Traditions through Music and Spoken Word,” on Friday and Saturday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.
Conceived and directed by Williams, who lives in Washington, D.C., the concert is a mix of music, dance and readings that draws on books and poems by African-American authors, old European carols and newer traditions like Kwanzaa.
“We just put our own spin on them,” says Williams, who also heads NEWorks Productions in the District, and also has premiered works with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., and the Charleston Symphony in South Carolina.
“There are traditional carols to gospel to R&B to spirituals and jazz,” he says about his latest show.
A first for Williams, the premiere of “Christmas Gift!” also is a first for the Clarice Smith center, which until now has not presented a show during the University of Maryland’s holiday semester break.
“When Nolan offered us this opportunity, we saw it as a way of continuing our service to the community,” says Paul Brohan, the center’s director of artistic initiatives.
“I don’t think anything like it is offered anyplace else,” he says.
Central to the project is a book given to Williams by Newsome called “Christmas Gif’: An Anthology of Christmas Poems, Songs and Stories Written By and About African Americans.”
The concert is dedicated to Newsome, who died in September and who most recently was the director of the Prince George’s African-American Museum and Cultural Center in North Brentwood.
The book was authored by Charlemae Hill Rollins, head of the children’s section at the Chicago Public Library, who died in 1979.
Rollins put it together when parents told her it was hard to find books about African-American Christmas traditions.
Christmas Gif’ was a game played by slaves on Christmas Day when, upon encountering each other, they would vie to be the first to say, “Christmas gif’.”
The person who wasn’t first would give the winner a small present like a bag of nuts or a teacake or a carved figure — anything they might have to share among their meager resources.
“It was a way in which they honored each other on a day when they had a day off,” Williams says.
“I encounter folks to this day who say that when they were growing up, their grandmother used to say, Christmas gif’ and they never knew why,” Williams says.
“She would use it to give them gifts,” he says.
The concert, with its cast of 60 people, features R&B singer Shirley Murdock and musician John Stoddart, who in one piece infuses “Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with the sounds of smooth jazz and Afro-Caribbean music.
Also on stage performing in some of the more than 20 pieces will be three griots [African storytellers], two dance groups and Williams’ group of singers, “Voices of Inspiration.”
Williams has adapted or arranged music that includes everything from a Kwanzaa chant to the Austrian Christmas carol “Silent Night.”
He also has written original music that includes songs like “Christmas Gif’” and “Christmas Remembrances.”
“I think the production is very unique and very special,” Williams says.
“I think for Prince George’s County, it will become a wonderful celebration and a unifying celebration,” he says.