In The Jam: Only Child — now streaming on demand from Signature Theatre — Tony Award nominee Daniel J. Watts recounts his life as the only child of a single mother: a latchkey kid who grows up with experiences that it took a lifetime to write — his lifetime.
Watts says that his stories were inspired by his great-grandmother, who used to make jam in her house. Well, perhaps the inspiration was not the stories but the way he distributes them to us, the way his great-grandmother made her recipe: in large quantity, because “you can’t make it for yourself — you have to make it in bulk, keep some for yourself, and give the rest away.” So too Watts serves up the stories of his life in styles of rap, dance, and spoken word poetry, with a soundtrack provided by DJ Duggz.
You might say that Watts spins his tale the way Lin-Manuel Miranda delivered Hamilton, with clever rap and rhyme, but here, instead of a history lesson, we get from Watts a powerful declaration of the happiness and heartbreak of his growing up.
His account is told in a stream of consciousness that isn’t, really. The audience is drawn in to the thought-provoking words as Watts relays them — natural, seamless, and seemingly improvised — but therein lies the genius. Watts admits at the beginning of the performance the quantity of “poems, bad raps, notebooks, etc.” that all amount to “stuff” as he calls it. Yet he has provided a performance that gives us the audience the feeling of being in the moment without ever noticing all the preparation that went into it.
And tell it he does, with humor, feeling, and regret and sorrow. He pokes fun at iconic influences like Boyz II Men for “ruining his love life” more than once. He shares the beginning of his journey into therapy with us in a funny moment with DJ Duggz, who hits a loud record scratch when Watts hints that he started going to therapy because DJ Duggz did first. Oversharing, bro. And decisively, he articulates the fears and rage about being a Black man in a world where the subject of racism is not something the nation can avoid any longer.
Ultimately, what the audience comes away with is an understanding of not only Watts’s life but the connections we make in our own lives, good and bad, and the meaning of our choices when we reflect on them. He talks about the capacity of hurting and healing, which is not new. Yet the fruit stays fresh in this piece is because it speaks with honesty and sincerity, in this time of a pandemic, when an art form can still open our eyes — even as we might be wrestling with boxes of stuff we have left to go through in in our own attics.
Running Time: About 90 minutes.
Written and Performed by Daniel J. Watts
DJ and Sound Design by DJ Duggz
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Lighting Design by Adam Honoré
Assistant Direction by Rickey Tripp
Director of Photography: Justin Chiet
Edited by James Gardiner
Filmed by Chiet Productions
Production Coordinator: Kerry Epstein