With “Daniel J. Watts’ The Jam: Only Child,” Signature Theatre truly shows that it’s thriving in this new digital frontier.
Following the vocal fireworks of its starry Stephen Sondheim revue with Broadway star Norm Lewis, which launched its Signature Features 2021 season, the Arlington company dials it down for a more subdued and deeply moving one-man show (or two-man if you count the DJ).
As with “Simply Sondheim,” both streaming on Marquee TV, the latest Signature offering was filmed by Chiet Productions and features beautiful and moody lighting work by Adam Honoré. However, with “The Jam” being so personal, you will wish you were right there in the audience as Watts shares stories from his youth and adulthood, using them to convey wide-ranging feelings of joy, love, pain and rage. And even though you’re watching him empty his life onstage from home, Watts has an incredible way of connecting with you through the screen.
The Broadway actor and Tony nominee for “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical”—his credits also include “Hamilton” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” —is an electrifying presence onstage, a gifted storyteller with a megawatt smile and killer dance moves.
Watts’ wardrobe is simple—a tee, denim overalls and baseball cap, but he’s able to transform himself from an energetic cartoon-loving kid of a single mom to a high schooler splitting his time between wrestling and tap to a grown man dealing with love and loss. The butterflies on his socks are a key detail here as this “Jam” tracks his own metamorphosis.
“The Jam” takes its inspiration from Watts’ great-grandmother who would make the sticky, sweet stuff in bulk and share it with others. So, following in her footsteps, Watts is sharing, too, and serving up his spoken word preserves in a show infused with rap, dance, and musical and vocal backup from DJ Duggz (aka Preston W. Dugger III). Children of the ’80s and ’90s will enjoy the nostalgic samples of morning cartoon themes and songs by Boyz II Men and 69 Boyz.
In “Only Child,” one of several “Jams,” Watts invites audiences into what he calls a “journey into the attic of his mind” as he recounts his therapy experience. This 94-minute production, sharply directed by Obie Award winner Lileana Blain-Cruz, delivers both playful and piercing moments. Earlier stories tell of his fascination with the word “flammable” and how he lit up the bathroom during a rubber cement mishap, the awkwardness of eighth-grade dances and sweet memories of his first love, Kimberly.
As Watts moves into his more adult timeline, the stories become heavy with emotion as he talks about trying to reconnect with his absent father during college, losing a loved one and living as a Black man in America during today’s turbulent times, tapping out his rage as he rushes through names of those who have lost their lives in recent years.
With COVID-19 vaccinations furiously rolling out across the country and signs of the theater industry waking up, hopefully it won’t be too long before we’re experiencing powerful stories such as this in person and not on screen.