James Ijames on the ‘Wildest Dream’ of His Pulitzer Win—and Reinventing ‘Hamlet’ in ‘Fat Ham’

·17 min read
Beowulf Sheehan
Beowulf Sheehan

Typically, James Ijames’ neighbors in South Philadelphia greet him with a friendly but neutral “Hey, how are you doing?” and everyone keeps moving. But after Ijames (pronounced Imes) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last week for his play Fat Ham, the greeting became a more effusive “Hey, you’re famous!

“I’m still feeling quite happy, like, a rush of happiness,” Ijames, 41, told The Daily Beast a few days later. He was about to travel to see the play, a contemporary reinvention of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in the backyard of a Southern Black family who own a barbecue restaurant, performed on stage for the first time at New York’s Public Theater (showing to June 12).

Until now, Fat Ham has only been performed as a streaming production by the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where Ijames is a co-artistic director. Now its first in-theater run, happening in tandem with Ijames’ Pulitzer win, is predictably sold out. A co-production with the National Black Theater, it is directed by the Public’s associate artistic director, Saheem Ali.

“I’m still feeling really humbled by the whole thing,” Ijames, who originally studied to be an actor, said of the Pulitzer. The announcement came when he was at a departmental celebration at Villanova University, where he is associate professor of theater in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As the news broke, the celebration became double-themed. “I was surrounded by people I teach and have taught,” Ijames said. “It was really lovely. I was so happy, so proud. It was inspiring.”

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Ijames’ husband was also delighted. “He got a set of balloons saying ‘Congratulations.’ They’re still hanging downstairs. I don’t want to take them down. Every time I see them it’s like… yay.” Ijames’ near and extended family, who live in and around Kings Mountain, North Carolina, are all thrilled and planning a New York trip to see the play.

Ijames had sat in on rehearsals but could not wait to be in a full house to watch his creation unfold. “The sense I get is that it works even better with a live audience,” Ijames said. “Talking to the director and actors after the first preview, they said, ‘We didn’t realize it was going to light up the room in the way it did.’ People were very excited and responsive to the play.”

“It does feel like a dream,” Ijames told The Daily Beast. “I feel like I’ve awakened in something that feels like the kind of career I wanted. I’m very happy. Not long after I found out, I looked at all the past winners of the prize, and thought, ‘My God, this list of writers is incredible,’ so I feel really honored to be counted among them. I’m just really thrilled.”

There had not been a wild celebration at the time of our conversation. Ijames was hoping to, but he’s directing a production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview (opening for previews at the Wilma on May 31), another of his plays, Reverie, is currently running, and he has his teaching responsibilities at Villanova.

“I haven’t stopped or been able to pause,” Ijames said. “I’m looking forward to celebrating and basking in it. Also, I’m someone, when things like this happen, who tries as best I can to maintain some level of quotidian normalcy. I try not to get too caught up in it. Hopefully, people will treat me the same as they always have.”

So no detailed riders yet, or demands for just blue M&Ms?

“Oh no, that’s not me at all,” Ijames said, laughing. “That will never happen. I’m more likely to bring my own bag of things with me, thanks very much.”

When the day came that Ijames knew the Pulitzer announcement was to be made, he had a feeling “in the pit of my stomach of aggghh. I was anxious but also excited, and tried avoid the internet and Twitter. And then the calls started to come, and I thought, ‘OK, it’s real and it’s like the wildest dream.’ I just suddenly ran head-first into the wildest dream.”

Ijames had hoped to be nominated as a finalist—“I didn’t think that I was going to win!”—observing the field of theater that encompassed the “really remarkable, really gorgeous” plays of both the stay-at-home pandemic era that streamed online like Fat Ham, and those that bloomed in the months since last summer when theaters opened again—such as Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, the play that ushered the return of Broadway after an 18-month enforced closure. The story of two Black friends, and their dreams and nightmares, it was a powerful herald of what theater on Broadway could be, in the wake of the activism generated by the murder of George Floyd.

In its proud announcement of his Pulitzer achievement, Villanova University noted the many awards Ijames received preceding it, including the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Artist, two Barrymore Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play, and two Barrymore Awards for Outstanding Direction of a Play. He was a Pew Fellow for Playwriting and winner of the Terrence McNally New Play Award for WHITE, the 2015 Kesselring Honorable Mention Prize winner for The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, and won a 2019 Kesselring Prize for his play Kill Move Paradise. He is also a founding member of Orbiter 3, Philadelphia’s first playwright producing collective.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Marcel Spears and director Saheem Ali in rehearsal for “Fat Ham.”</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Joan Marcus</div>

Marcel Spears and director Saheem Ali in rehearsal for “Fat Ham.”

Joan Marcus

Ijames is looking forward to enjoying the increased professional freedom winning the Pulitzer will bring. He loves teaching and intends to keep doing it. “I always say it keeps me honest, because you have to tell students that you have to practice yourself.” He may pull back from other work, like directing, and focus on writing more exclusively. “I’m interested in writing beyond the theater and writing plays,” Ijames said. “Now I can explore and challenge myself to do things I wouldn’t have expected to do. I have been batting around the idea of a novel for a while, but I haven’t sat down to write it. I’m also curious about writing for TV and film.”

The novel, Ijames reveals, will be about a “tender-hearted and innocent” teacher finding themselves in the midst of a nest-of-vipers academia setting. Such a setting, he is quick to emphasize, is far from the “loving, supportive” department he presently works in.

As well as the novel, and possible TV and film scripts, Ijames reveals he is also working on three plays. One for Manhattan Theatre Club is loosely based on the historic 1963 meeting Robert F. Kennedy held with James Baldwin and a number of Black luminaries to discuss civil rights. “It will not be a true historical retelling of story, and a lot more of an emotional exploration of that moment in time. I’m really proud of it. I think it’s a very good play.” He laughed. “Well, we’ll see once we get it in front of some people!”

Ijames is also writing a play for the Steppenwolf Theatre, “though I have no idea about what it will be about.” He is also in the process of drafting an adaptation of Medea for Bryn Mawr, the Pennsylvania liberal arts college.

When he gets the chance to unwind (when does he?!), Ijames likes to cook, and as “a relatively social person” enjoys hanging out with friends. “I watch a surprising amount of TV considering how much I write. I watch TV while doing other things—everything from bad reality TV to good reality TV to gorgeous prestige dramas to sitcoms. I just love the form. As a kid I was always watching TV. My mother was like, ‘Would you please go get a book, just one book.’ And I’m like, ‘These are books!’ I also love and loved to read. I don’t want it to seem like I didn’t read. But I love TV as a form, always have.”

“Writing was a way for me to metabolize my frustrations, anger, and anxieties”

Ijames grew up in Bessemer City, North Carolina. He wrote plays, skits, and poems from a young age, “because I had some anger problems when I was a kid. Writing was a way for me to metabolize my frustrations, anger, and anxieties. All of these things I still deal with as an adult, but I have better tools to deal with them.”

At Morehouse College, where he received a B.A. in Drama, Ijames began his studies as a vocal performance major because he wanted to be an opera singer or concert performer. “I had a very loving but blunt voice teacher who said, ‘You have a lovely voice. It’s not going to happen. You should probably do well in musical theater.’”

Ijames roared with laughter. “I auditioned for musicals at school and got cast in them because I could sing, but I didn’t have the opera thing. And that’s when I changed my major from music to theater—and the rest, as they say, is history. But every one of my plays has music because I just love it so much. That love of hearing people sing, and singing myself, has never gone away.”

He listens to music constantly, when he is writing and not writing. “I’m always surrounded by music, all different kinds. I’m really, really non-denominational when comes to music. I listen to everything from opera to country music, hip-hop to jazz. I love what music offers the mind of a writer, which is rhythm and tempo and poetic language.”

At grad school—Temple University, where he studied toward an a MFA in acting—Ijames continued to write. “It has always been there. Writing has always felt like the most natural way to communicate how I am feeling, and I think I am most effective at reaching people when I write rather than when I direct or act. This gives me the opportunity to dive into that and say ‘yes’ to it in a really passionate way.”

Ijames came out as gay “late,” as he put it. “But I always knew. It wasn’t something I was hiding. I was like, ‘I don’t have any language for this so until I do I don’t have anything to say.’ I grew up in a family that was incredibly loving and incredibly supportive. I was afraid of coming out more because I knew they were going to have to talk to people who were less tolerant about it. That gave me a little bit of nervous energy, but when I came out they were all like, ‘Yeah, erm, we’ve known for a while.’

“I grew up in a very religious family and community. Even in that I never felt like I didn’t belong, but I did feel like I was different. I think part of the reason I had so much anger and sadness was because I was hiding this thing that I couldn’t metabolize, that I couldn’t talk about, so in a lot of ways the writing was the thing that freed me to be able to be very open about that.”

Ijames wrote his queerness onto the page overtly and in code. “I look back on some of that stuff now, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I was really feeling it.’ I was really going through it at that time, but again not having any sort of language and not really having examples around me was hard. At that time your options were kind of Will and Grace, and The Golden Girls are essentially gay men. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I saw, ‘There are people out here who have the same experience as me.’ Now I feel like that is even more expansive. I have never felt less alone than I do right now in terms of my identity. There are so many people in the world who share my lived experience.”

Of his cultural touchstones and inspirations, Ijames said he used to watch stage productions of plays on PBS, alongside Tyler Perry’s stage plays on DVD. While at college in a used bookstore, he found a copy of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play and Other Works.

“I sat in my dorm room over the course of several hours and read that book cover to cover. I think what I learned from her as a writer is you can literally do anything you want. There are rules, but you can create a set of rules that work for you and your craft, which is what she has done so beautifully. I remember vividly that being a touchstone of me thinking, ‘Oh, OK, I’m going to play with sound, I’m going to play with music and language, I’m going to play with opaque characters.’ This was a really formative moment for me.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Lynn Whitfield attends the Time’s Up luncheon at the 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival on Aug. 11, 2021, in Edgartown, Massachusetts.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Arturo Holmes/Getty for Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival</div>

Lynn Whitfield attends the Time’s Up luncheon at the 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival on Aug. 11, 2021, in Edgartown, Massachusetts.

Arturo Holmes/Getty for Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival

Black filmmaking of the ’90s was also significant—the movies of Spike Lee, Malcolm D. Lee, and Julie Dash, and movies including Daughters of the Dust (1991) and Eve’s Bayou (1997). “They hit on something at that time which I am always trying to get back to in my playwriting. You felt, but they were also very funny, the drama was really great, the acting was incredible. Those actors are people in my head when I am writing something—Lynn Whitfield, Nia Long—because those were the people I was watching on screen when I was growing up. They’re a big part of the worlds I write.”

Did Ijames find theater an inclusive space, or like many Black people and people of color, has he found it excluding?

“I always felt it was a very exclusive space,” Ijames told The Daily Beast. “First, I went into to Morehouse, a historically Black college with a bunch of people who were very similar to me. We were all Black people. Then I got to grad school. I was one of two people of color in my class and I was the only Black person, so that changed for me my understanding of what I had access to, and what I was allowed to do. That sort of thing hit me like a punch. ‘Whoa, this is not at all what I was expecting.’ It was the same thing when I started working professionally. It really was an industry where it felt like I had to elbow to find my space in.

“At a certain point in my career I just decided, ‘I’m not going to be anywhere where people don’t want me to be.’ Like, ‘I’m not going to stay here and beg you to accept me, I’m gonna just leave.’ And I left a lot of spaces that if I would have kowtowed or bent to the will of oppression essentially that was happening, I probably would have been accepted there. But I think my career would have looked really different, and I’m glad that I said no to those spaces that actively let me know they didn’t want me, and I said no to spaces that passively let me know that they didn’t want me—places just tolerated me.

“I thought, ‘I don’t need to do that. I can work. I’m a person from the South born of people who were sharecroppers, teachers, and farmers. I can make a living out of something. I don’t have to stay here and do this.’ I’m really grateful for that, because I feel like I have built a career truly on my own terms. That feels good. I’m happy about that.”

“I want to make that clear, so no one thinks my family is like this”

Ijames’ love of Hamlet germinated after playing the role, and directing a scene from the play, in college. “It was the big scene where we meet all the players for the most part. Hamlet is speaking. It’s always stayed with me: ‘That this too too solid flesh would melt/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!’ I still remember it, and remember really loving it.

“Then I got my hands on a VHS tape of the Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet Hamlet [1996]. That was the first time I saw the play, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is a play about revenge, family, history, and how history is visited upon the present.’ That’s really what all of my plays are about—trying to unpack what we inherit and what we are leaving for people. So Hamlet has always connected with me in that way.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Billy Eugene Jones, Chris Herbie Holland, Nikki Crawford, and Marcel Spears in rehearsal for “Fat Ham.”</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Joan Marcus</div>

Billy Eugene Jones, Chris Herbie Holland, Nikki Crawford, and Marcel Spears in rehearsal for “Fat Ham.”

Joan Marcus

Fat Ham’s central character, a queer man called Juicy, “is meeting and undermining his family’s cycles of trauma and violence,” Ijames told The New York Times. “It’s really about how he brings the rest of his family with him to that realization that they don’t have to continue these cycles of abuse and violence, and that they can do something completely different with their lives. It’s a comedy in the end, so I take Hamlet and I essentially make it not tragic anymore.”

“When I decided to do the adaptation, it just came really easy to me that I should set it in a place that was very familiar to me, and with people I knew,” Ijames told The Daily Beast. “So it’s set in the South at a barbecue in the backyard of a family. My own family isn’t quite as troubled and murderous as in Hamlet, but that musicality of language, that overlapping speech of one person falling over and into someone else’s thought just seemed to work, and felt like the same sort of thing Shakespeare is trying to accomplish with his meter. I am trying to do the same with Black Southern electric conversation that happens in summer at barbecues. The two meet very beautifully. I was kind of surprised once people started reading it out loud. I was like, ‘Oh it works!’”

Fat Ham is not autobiographical, Ijames emphasized, laughing heartily. “I want to make that clear, so no one thinks my family is like this. The action beats grow out of Hamlet, the Shakespeare play, though some of the cadence and the way the characters speak are very true to what I grew up listening to.”

The presence and impact of Black character-led productions including Pass Over, A Strange Loop, Trouble in Mind, Thoughts of a Colored Man, and for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf on Broadway this season seems to mark a moment of evolution.

“I certainly felt that way and on some level Pass Over starting this season had me thinking, ‘Oh, I’m really paying attention now,’” Ijames said. “It was incredible and wonderful. A Strange Loop is a great example of a musical pushing against traditional musical theater and doing something really brilliant. All of this did make me think, ‘Maybe it’s possible for my weird plays to make it there.’ When Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play happened I thought, ‘There’s something shifting.’ It feels like a bit of evolution and progress. I’m always hopeful and remain hopeful, but you just never know.”

Does Ijames imagine Fat Ham having a Broadway life after its run at the Public? “You never know,” he said. “Predicting what can go to Broadway—I have no sense of that. I think because I’m based in Philly I don’t have my finger on the heartbeat of that. I would love it, it would be incredible, but we’ll see. Let’s get this one opened, and then see what happens after that.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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