Multi-talented performer Daniel J. Watts will turn the lens inward in his latest installment of “spoken-word preserves” at “The Jam: Only Child” at 9:30 p.m. at Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.
“2017 was surprising,” Daniel J. Watts said to start, in a very honest, yet wildly understated summation. He admitted at last year’s showcase, “The Jam: MLK” in January 2017 that he threw it together in time to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy, and find his space in it, because he came to realize in the turbulent political climate that “the next year’s not promised.” One year later, his show “The Jam: Only Child,” a night of spoken word, music, and dance, falls this time on President’s Day only by coincidence (and Joe’s Pub’s availability), but the way it came together was just as serendipitous.
Since his last electric rendition, cooking up The Jam in his poetic “kitchen,” Watts had moved to L.A. for a while but came back to NYC to attend “a wedding on a whim.” In the week that he stayed, he submitted an audition tape for a TV show; landing a recurring role on TBS’ upcoming “The Last O.G.” co-produced by Jordan Peele and Tracy Morgan, starring Morgan, Tiffany Haddish, and Cedric the Entertainer. He then also booked Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole playing Sammy Davis Jr. opposite Dulé Hill’s Cole in a limited engagement at Philadelphia’s People’s Light Theater. A Theater Residency at the Kimmel Center of the Performing Arts in Philly (which partner’s with Joe’s Pub) then followed, and Watts was paired with writer Michael Thurber. Though Watts had every intention of “hanging [The Jam] up for a while, to just chill,” it was Thurber who pushed him. “He was like, ‘You can’t not do The Jam,’” Watts recalled.
He already performed his “spoken-word preserves” exploring the themes in Only Child before, at the now-closed Webster Hall back in July. “It was like throwing paint at the wall, seeing what it looks like,” he said. At the rest of his other Jams, there were no tech rehearsals, so audiences saw the first draft, self-editing process, and finished piece all at once. He knew that Only Child was a topic he wanted to revisit after giving it some distance so he could fine-tune it, tighten it up, and create an actual set around it after he was able to relish in the prior audience’s energy and feedback.
Watts calls himself a “latchkey kid;” growing up an only child in a single-parent home, and being a black child in predominantly white spaces, he had a lot to work through, which he did in therapy. These frank conversations are coming out from behind the shadows can help the audience feel less alone. (One of my favorite lines from The Jam: MLK had been“I’m in therapy, worth every penny, well, not every penny. I’ll keep my two cents.”) But now Watts says he’s let those feelings go that don’t serve him anymore. He’ll be accompanied again, this time only by repeat guest DJ Duggz; this show will be more intimate and introspective than the broader MLK.
At last year’s show, Watts began the work to create a space for intersectional dialogue, taking the time to highlight Corretta Scott King’s voice in the civil rights movement (among “many other names that we don’t hear so often,” he said). He recognized that he had been so used to looking only to examples who looked like him for guidance. In a truly poignant moment that still brings back chills, he asked the men in the audience to look the women seated beside them in the eyes and to ask for their forgiveness for turning a blind eye to their stories. He wanted to squash the notion many hold on to, that feeling that “my pain is worse than ‘your’ pain” and to realize, “We have a common enemy, so how do we address it together?”
Watts hopes that by carrying on the legacy that his great-grandmother started, turning up the heat in the kitchen and creating sweet fruit jam preserves to savor and share among neighbors and friends, that he can inspire his audience to connect, become story tellers, and to stop “being mad at what they think they should be mad at.” He hopes they’ll see love and kinship in the room, and leave feeling nourished. Not a bad way to spend the day off from work. The show’s in two weeks, snag tickets ($20-$30) while you can at publictheater.org.
Photo Credit: Simply Greg.