TINA TURNER MUSICAL: These Charlotte Area Actors Never Met

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, who grew up performing in Union County schools, said Tina Turner has “boundless energy I can relate to.” Image: Manuel Harlan via The Charlotte Observer

BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

Daniel J. Watts and Nkeki Obi-Melekwe have a uniquely satisfying relationship.

On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, he insults her, throws a cymbal at her, pulls her by the hair, slaps her, chokes her and punches her. She bites his ear, kicks him and knees him in the groin. An hour later, they’re holding hands.

That’s how things go in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” now playing to near-capacity houses at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. Watts stars as volcanic Ike Turner, Tina’s abusive husband, in his ninth Broadway show but the first where he’s created a leading role. Obi-Melekwe steps in for top-billed Adrienne Warren on matinee days, because no sane actress would do this taxing performance twice in nine hours. (The show ends with a 12-minute mini-concert.)

How did two actors from Union County end up side by side at the curtain call of a Broadway hit? That’s a strange story — two strange stories, really — but their shared heritage makes them comfortable together. British director Phyllida Lloyd, who made her own Broadway debut in 2001 with “Mamma Mia!,” saw that when she cast them.

“I was looking for actors whose personalities and qualities went beyond their acting talents, people who look beyond ‘What is my next role?’ and think of the world,” she said. “That Nkeki and Daniel come from the South means they have a special understanding of the world from which Tina and Ike came. (Tina grew up in Tennessee, Ike in Mississippi.)

“Daniel is a person of the greatest integrity, a caring and passionate man — an instinctive actor and musician without any vanity who helps to lead the Broadway company, but in a discreet way. Nkeki is a force field —she is so magnetic she makes you believe she’s actually creating Tina’s choreography in front of your eyes. I have to remind myself sometimes that she is so young and just setting out in the profession.”

Though Watts and Obi-Melekwe never knew each other growing up, both were buoyed by supportive family members and single-minded in their determination to perform. Here’s how they reached their goals.

THE MAN FROM INDIAN TRAIL

Between 2006 and 2019, Daniel J. (for Joseph) Watts appeared in eight Broadway musicals that racked up 21 Tony Awards. If you remember seeing him in any, you are likely a member of the extended Watts family, a classmate from Sun Valley High School or maybe a CPCC Summer Theatre veteran who worked with him in the 1990s.

That’s no longer true. As Ike Turner, he has become a star by projecting sinister seductiveness through the first act of “Tina.” (Ike gets only one brief scene in Act 2.) New York Times critic Jesse Green wrote: “Watts is terrific delivering his gleaming menace.”

How does a genial human being, one raised in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, find the core of Ike’s rage? How does the guy Obi-Melekwe said “has a brotherly quality toward everyone he meets” play this bitter loner?

“Hurt individuals hurt individuals,” Watts explained. “Ike grew up in the pre-Civil Rights South in the ‘40s with a lot of trauma: a father killed by a lynch mob, an abusive stepfather, one wife who left and another who ended in an asylum. The world told him who he was and who he would not be. He wrote one of the first rock songs (“Rocket 88”), but he would never be allowed to be Elvis.

“I started going to therapy a couple of years ago to find out what anger I was holding onto. I grew up in the South around the Confederate flag, and kids called me n----- when I was a kid. There were times I wasn’t positive if I was being treated equally, because I was black. My dad wasn’t around. You can try to put your pain (somewhere) — Ike put it into music — but maybe that’s not enough. Theater and dance were my outlets.”

Watts’ life has differed from Ike Turner’s in two crucial ways. First, he can articulate deep feelings, most recently in an ever-evolving, one-man autobiographical show called “The Jam.” (He did it at the Public Theatre in January.) That makes sense, as he committed to acting after watching John Leguizamo in a similar endeavor titled “Freak.”

“I had been writing as an outlet since I was 11 or 12: stream of consciousness stuff, poems, stories. I saved everything. In 2011, I was touring in ‘Aladdin’ in Seattle — I was supposed to be a carpet, but they cut the carpet — and had nothing to do. I started going back through my old material … and subtitled the show ‘Only Child,’ because being an only child (shaped me).”

Second, supportive women urged young Watts forward and kept him focused:

“I always knew I was loved. My mother (Artez) broke her neck to make sure I had what I needed; she understood the necessity of keeping me busy in a positive way, with dance and basketball and baseball and soccer. All my grandmother cared about was love, and she adopted every friend I had as a surrogate grandchild. Sue Mead, my French teacher in high school, has been to every production I’ve done, except ‘The King and I’ in Rock Island, Ill.”

They watched him grow dramatically, from a 1997 “Big River” at CPCC Summer Theatre — as the smallest cast member, he hid inside a log to roll it across the stage — to plays at Elon University, where he graduated in 2004.

Two years later, he joined the ensemble of “The Color Purple” on Broadway. Until “Tina,” he was always in the ensemble on Broadway, or a swing available to cover many roles, or an understudy, or a replacement in a small solo part. Through “The Little Mermaid” and “Memphis” and even “Hamilton,” that seemed to be enough.

BROADWAY KEPT CALLING
“Everything is timing,” he said at 37. “I didn’t know how to get out of the ensemble and didn’t believe I would. They’re safe. By the third year in New York, I was making the most money I had ever made. I never stayed in a show more than six months, and I liked to keep things moving. The artist in me couldn’t stay put: I would go on to something else (such as regional theater), my bank account would suffer, and I’d find my way back to Broadway.

“Around ‘Hamilton,’ I got tired of that pattern. I was not on Broadway for three years after that and worked a lot in television. If I was going to come back, it had to be on my own terms.”

Adrienne Warren, who met him during a brief run of “The Wiz” in 2009, believed him ready for something big and put his “name in the hat for ‘Tina’.” Bernard Telsey, casting director for “Tina” and countless other shows, had met Watts on “The Color Purple” and kept him in mind for something substantial.

“I did some research on Ike and thought, “I know this guy, and he might be fun to play,” Watts said. “For all his wickedness, there’s a human being in there doing the best he can, but his best is subpar. An audience can disassociate itself from a monster and not think, ‘That might be me.” But I wanted people to be able to see themselves to some degree in Ike Turner.”

THE WOMAN FROM WAXHAW

Her first name means “one who owns the future” in the Igbo language of her father’s native Nigeria, and the future arrived last spring in London. At 22, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe was hired to take over the title role of “Tina” six nights a week when Adrienne Warren departed.

The girl who’d gotten serious about theater just seven years before would have to carry a hit musical in the West End. She was trying to rise to that occasion when she met the 79-year-old icon she played.

“I was nearing my opening and had learned all the lines and songs and dances — it was quite a whirlwind — but I didn’t know what to do with any of it,” she recalled. “I had all this information, and I knew who this person was, but I didn’t know how to make her someone I could relate to. Then she invited me to her home in Switzerland. (Turner, now a Swiss citizen, lives near Z├╝rich.)

“Getting to meet her lined everything up for me. I think of myself as spiritual. I believe in many things — karma and God and gods — and she’s a Buddhist. I didn’t know how to talk about Buddhism with her, but she was excited to hear that I would like to chant, and we did. The way she kind of enveloped me in her spiritual realm … I can’t describe it.”

Obi-Melekwe hadn’t cared about acting at all until middle school. Her parents, Obiajulu Melekwe and Bernice Obi-Melekwe, moved to North Carolina from the Bronx when she was 9, and her dad got a Ph.D. from the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina.

Little Nkeki watched the Disney Channel and thought idly “I could do that.” She made her stage debut with three lines as narrator number four in the Marvin Ridge Middle School “Beauty and the Beast,” then moved to Cuthbertson Middle School and played Grace Farrell in an eighth-grade “Annie.” Her father’s insistence that she watch the movie “Fame” was about to pay off.

She landed in the high school theater program at Central Academy of Technology and Arts in Monroe. There she won acting awards at N.C. Theatre Conference and Southeastern Theatre Conference as the Lady in Red in Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls.”

‘IT’S MY LIFE’
“I don’t think I realized theater was going to be my job until my senior year of high school,” she said. “I wanted be a writer, a journalist, a public health doctor, a teacher. Performing was just a hobby that turned into a more serious hobby. I’m still getting used to the idea that theater isn’t a hobby anymore — it’s my life.”

She made that transition at the University of Michigan, after Charlotte director-choreographer Linda Booth showed her how to audition for colleges and vocal coach Susan Roberts Knowlson fine-tuned her voice. She sang “Let It Go” for a halftime show at a Michigan football game, starred in multiple musicals and graduated in 2018. Within a year, Phyllida Lloyd cast her in that London production of “Tina.”

At the time, Lloyd told Playbill Magazine, “This role must be one of the most demanding in world theater and requires a human being of exceptional gifts and massive inner strength. Nkeki has both. Nkeki just has that thing — ferocious power — without which you can’t even think of playing Tina.”

Asked about that, the actress laughed.

“Guys I’ve dated have said, ‘You are simultaneously a 13-year-old girl and a 30-year-old woman. You have the energy of both.’ I have always been told I have a certain maturity, but I also feel like someone who’s going through puberty at times.

“In researching Tina and watching her and then speaking to her, she has this kind of ageless quality, this boundless energy I can relate to. That’s what I try to capture onstage.”


SOURCE: CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

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