Daniel J. Watts ’04: Lighting up the stage

With a nuanced portrayal of rock pioneer Ike Turner, Daniel J. Watts ’04 is Elon’s first performer to receive a Tony Award nomination.

Daniel J. Watts ’04 plays Ike Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.” (Photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Wiping away tears, Daniel J. Watts ’04 traces the path from his first, spur-of-the-moment Broadway stage performance 15 years ago to becoming Elon’s first performer to receive a Tony Award nomination in the fall for his breakout performance as Ike Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”

In 2006, he was cast as a swing — an understudy of multiple roles — in “The Color Purple.” Unexpectedly, Watts was tapped to fill a role in the matinee show. He called his mother, Artez Caldwell Watts — “It’s happening!” — who jumped on the first flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, but arrived in New York too late for that show. “I believe you’ll be on that stage tonight,” she told him.

She was right, and the show’s lead actress recognized Watts’ Broadway debut during the curtain call for his mother to see. “It was magical. It felt like recognition of our work,” Watts says of her being in the audience. “We did it. I felt welcomed into the community. This started there.”

Since then, he’s played parts in nine Broadway productions, such as “In the Heights,” “Hamilton” and “Memphis;” numerous off-Broadway performances, including his original productions; and recurring roles on TV series like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and comedian Tracy Morgan’s “The Last O.G.” This fall, the American Theatre Wing recognized his first lead performance as one of Broadways’ best, nominating him for a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” is nominated for 12 Tonys in all, including Best Musical. “It’s acknowledgement more than anything,” Watts says. “There have been plenty of people who’ve done the work deserving of a Tony nomination but didn’t get it. I appreciate the acknowledgement for the work that I put in.”

Daniel J. Watts ‘04 & co-star Adrienne Warren have both received Tony Award nominations for their work in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.” (Photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Tony winner Adrienne Warren originated the electrifying role of Tina Turner in London’s West End. They were already friends when she recommended Watts for the part of Ike Turner in the debut Broadway run. He dug deep for the role, searching for ways to add dimension beyond a caricature of an abusive partner. “I’m not trying to vindicate him, but I do think he at least deserves a human look,” he says. “Even Tina says he didn’t get a fair shake” in the biopic based on her autobiography, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

Ike Turner’s father was beaten and left for dead by a lynch mob, later dying from those injuries when Ike was a young child. Raised by a violent, alcoholic stepfather, he was also sexually abused by others. “There’s a moment in the play when he tells it, but then he just moves on from it,” Watts says. “It’s something that he’s still trying to work through and reconcile, but he doesn’t want to use it as a crutch. I don’t think he ever really dealt with it. … When you haven’t worked through trauma, you think that art might help. He was a very hard worker. He was a genius of his time.”

Hard work is something Watts can relate to. In addition to being a prolific actor, he’s an accomplished writer, dancer and producer. The stage chose him early. Around age 13, he was encouraged to audition for a play about a historically Black Charlotte neighborhood. He was enthralled with the expression possible on stage and captured by the stories of Black Americans around the turn of the century. “It gave me a sense of identity,” Watts says. “It helped me better understand where I had come from and to dig deeper into the history of African Americans.”

Involvement with summer stock theater around college students and theater professionals made him determined to pursue higher education and a career in the performing arts. His acceptance to Elon’s music theatre program and its conservatory-modeled training in music, acting and dance broadened his understanding of performance and how to embody a character. “It was all about being vulnerable and connecting with a character’s emotion and background,” he says. Elon’s requirement that every major audition for each production also prepared him for success.

(Photo courtesy of Nathan Johnson)

“Ninety percent of the job is auditioning. You go on way more auditions than jobs you book,” Watts says. “At Elon, I learned how to audition, how to book a gig and what casting directors like. You have to understand how to best represent yourself for each show.”

It was also at Elon he first experienced the power of theater. After the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, most campus events were canceled. Performing arts faculty required students to attend a play by a visiting Shakespearean troupe. He was upset that they seemed to be ignoring a national tragedy. “It was ‘As You Like It.’ There was no set, there were no costumes, but I was enthralled. Then it was over. I had forgotten that it was 9/11,” Watts recalls. “That’s when I realized: That’s what theater does!”

He has returned to campus numerous times for performances and workshops with the Department of Performing Arts and has performed at events promoting Elon in New York City. In 2014, he directed undergraduates in “As We Journey from Mind to Mouth…,” an original piece they created. “I know what it does for students to have alumni involved with the program,” Watts says. “What I preach is that you have to offer something to the market. What do you have in you that the world needs that you’re sitting on because you’re scared, or you don’t think anybody values it? Give it. I promise you, there’s something somebody needs that only you can give.”

Watts has much to give.

Between stage roles, he’s co-written, produced and performed in a series of ongoing collaborative, cabaret-style shows featuring music, dance, spoken word and storytelling called “The Jam.” The work began years ago as an homage to his great-grandmother, who made homemade jam and gave it away. Jam isn’t refined, Watts says; it’s a mixture of fruit, seeds and pulp that add texture and flavor. “I’d rather be jam than jelly.” It’s also a fitting analogy to what he and his friends set out to achieve by blending their talents into full-length programs.

At Elon, I learned how to audition, how to book a gig and what casting directors like. You have to understand how to best represent yourself for each show.

While “Tina” was still in its original run last winter, he debuted “The Jam: Only Child.” It was the first time he was the primary performer, accompanied only by a DJ. The stories and poems celebrate his heritage as a Black man and address the joys and difficulties of being raised an only child by a single mother, sometimes a latchkey kid, moving from city to city in the Carolinas. There are times he talks about therapy and reckoning with the past. It shone a spotlight on his vulnerabilities. “By putting it out there, people can’t really use it against you. You’ve taken all their bullets,” he says. “I initially did it for me, then I found out it was relevant to many people. The more personal it became, the more universal it was.”

After Broadway and theaters shuttered for the pandemic, Watts followed this summer with three “The Jam” shows. “No More Silences,” “The Next Time is Now,” based on James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” and a revival of 2016’s “Love Terrorists — A Benefit for Orlando” focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, social unrest and the unfinished march toward equality and justice. With theaters closed for the foreseeable future, Watts is focused on screen acting and can be seen as “Felony” in “The Last O.G.” He enjoys the speed of filming and the versatility it allows actors to quickly change between projects, but he misses the electricity of the stage.

“In theater, you carry [the characters] with you. I haven’t been in the show for nine months, but Ike Turner is still right here on my shoulder,” Watts says.

He may have to get used to carrying Ike Turner with him. From here on, the billing will always read “Tony nominee Daniel J. Watts.”

“Unless I win. Then it’s ‘Tony winner Daniel J. Watts,’” he quips. “All of that sounds crazy. All of it.”

Due to the pandemic, the 74th annual Tony Awards ceremony’s date had yet to be announced as of publication.