Zhomontee Watson first took the stage when she was a sophomore in high school. Completely new to the world of acting, her first director chose her to play the lead in The Princess and the Pea. As a college senior, Watson found herself nominated for Best Actress in a musical in the 12th annual Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.
Watson netted the nomination (and a win)* in this year’s OEAAs with her performance as the lead character in Sister Act at Omaha Community Playhouse. She says she’s grateful, but it did catch her off guard. Her portrayal of Deloris Van Cartier was in September 2016—just before the cut-off date for OEAA qualifications.
“I did not expect this. Since it was over a year ago, I didn’t expect it to be part of the awards,” Watson says.
Sister Act, the musical comedy based on the 1992 film by the same name, follows Deloris Van Cartier on her journey into the Witness Protection Program after she sees a murder that she shouldn’t have. For her own safety, Deloris is sent to live in a holy convent. She struggles as she learns to adapt to her new life among the nuns.
“In this role I really had to connect to the words. There was no way you could sing those songs without connecting something to it,” Watson says.
Watson notes that most of her previous roles have been characters in established positions of power—such as a principal or mother figure—but Deloris Van Cartier was a different challenge for Watson to tackle. Completely removed from the security of her old life, Deloris must put her trust and safety into other people’s hands.
“I also got to have a sensitive and tender moment in the show where I had to connect with people who I love and who love me,” Watson says.
Sister Act displays a family-like bond between the nuns and Deloris, and Watson says that bond didn’t end when the curtain dropped. She says that her real-life connection to her fellow cast members helped bring her performance to life.
Director Kimberly Faith Hickman remembers Watson for her strong stage presence and work ethic. “She takes on the challenge and always accomplishes what you asked her to do, no matter how difficult it may be,” Hickman says. “You should never miss out on an opportunity to collaborate with Zhomontee.”
Acting has always been a passion for Watson. She doesn’t get compensated for her hours of devotion to the theater, but she does find acting to be an important outlet in her life.
“Acting definitely gave me a home away from home,” Watson says.
As someone who experienced some instability while growing up, acting was a way for Watson to find a support system and consistent group of people. Additionally, she’s found that acting puts her mind at ease.
“I can be myself with not being myself,” Watson says. “I get to dive into another character and leave my life at the door.”
In March, Watson is appearing in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of James and the Giant Peach. Like Sister Act, it is a musical directed by Hickman.
Watson plays the Earthworm in this beloved children’s story. Despite the role originally being intended for a man, she has taken on the challenge of portraying the character.
“She’s a risk-taker. I don’t know if she describes herself that way, but as someone who directs her I see her as a risk-taker,” Hickman says. “She asked if she could sing a part that wasn’t written for her gender and she was fantastic.”
Even through all her positive experiences in Omaha’s theater community, Watson does believe there’s room for improvement. Now, more than ever, she believes that conversations about inclusivity and diversity should be taking place.
While the OEAAs are taking steps to be more inclusive—such as changing their awards to be gender inclusive—there are other organizations that are failing to hit the mark.
“In our theater community now, it’s very important to know that inclusion is a thing and that it needs to remain a thing. It needs to become more a part of the narrative than it currently is,” Watson says.
She hopes that more theaters become proactive in finding diversity for their performances. There’s plenty of talent in Omaha’s minority communities, but theaters must create an inviting space. Watson says that they can’t just expect their theaters to develop a perfect cast—they have to actively seek and promote.
Additionally, she encourages those in the community to be accepting and understanding of newcomers. She believes that theaters can get stuck in a “comfort zone” that includes only casting a handful of frequent actors and actresses. By taking time to teach new thespians, Watson believes that Omaha’s already-impressive theater community can soar to new heights.
Her educational goals don’t stop with the stage. Her final year of undergraduate studies has taken up plenty of Watson’s free time, but she’s still managing to put the hours in for rehearsal and performance. Her current plan is to graduate in May and apply for UNO’s graduate counseling program.
“Grad school is a whole different ball game, so I’ll see how time management factors in, but I definitely don’t plan on stopping,” Watson says. “If I can squeeze in a show or two then I will.”
*Article updated after the OEAA winner announcements.
This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.