Q&A: South Philly’s Pulitzer-Winning Playwright James Ijames on His Big Broadway Debut
Plus, we ask him about his super-secret TV project and living in Mummerland.
Playwright James Ijames, who’s lived in Philly since 2003, pulled off quite a feat last year: He won the Pulitzer for Fat Ham, a play that had never seen a live audience. Here, he explains how that happened and why he insisted on taking Shakespeare’s most tragic work and turning it into a comedy. Previews of Fat Ham begin on March 21st. Opening night is April 12th.
Good morning, James. In your email to me yesterday, you told me you’ve been having a bunch of “eight-hour Zoom” days, which sounds like a new circle of Hell to me. What on earth are these about?
[Laughs] So I’m in a TV writers’ room in Los Angeles every day from 1 p.m. until 9 p.m. There are a couple of us on the East Coast, but most of the other writers are in L.A.
Oooh. A TV writers’ room in L.A. sounds … intriguing.
And I’m assuming you’re prohibited by some contractual clause from telling me a single thing about what you’re working on.
I am! It is very exciting. I should be able to tell you more later this year.
My interview with you is a departure from what I normally do in this section, since my interviewees tend to be household names like Patti LaBelle and Quinta Brunson. So maybe you should tell our readers who James Ijames is.
Well, first of all, my last name is pronounced like “times” without the “t.” I used to tell people it’s pronounced like the dog food, but at a certain point, I figured I should stop that. I am a playwright and director. Grew up down South. Started my career in Philadelphia while pursuing my MFA at Temple 20 years ago this August. Bought my house at 4th and Wolf in 2016 and now live here with my husband, Joel, who works for the school district. I’m also part of the artistic cohort at the Wilma and a professor at Villanova. And I’m now a Pulitzer winner and making my debut on Broadway! As for not being a household name, people in the theater community know who I am, and I’m kinda good with that.
That’s deep South Philly territory, 4th and Wolf. Mummerland. How do you like living there?
Love it, love it, love it. I will say that on the first New Year’s Day after I bought the house, very early in the morning, I heard this drum and then this whole band and was like, well, this is different. But I kind of dig that I am at the very beginning of this thing that happens all over the city.
Obviously, I picked now to speak with you because Fat Ham, the play for which you won the Pulitzer, opens on Broadway on April 12th. Could I prevail upon you to give us the Cliffs-Notes version?
Absolutely. This is a very loose adaptation of Hamlet. I transport the court of Denmark to the backyard cookout down South, where we’re celebrating a marriage. Our Hamlet is known as Juicy, and all Juicy wants to do is get his degree in human resources, but then his father shows up and says: Your uncle killed me, and you have to avenge me. So the play becomes about Juicy figuring out if he wants to repeat cycles of trauma, violence and vengeance.
Growing up down South, were you a theater kid?
I really didn’t decide until college that I wanted to be an actor, and I actually did my first year at Morehouse as a choral student before switching to theater in my second year. But I do recall being a little kid and seeing a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at some community theater. During the curtain call, I watched a feather fall off a performer’s boa. I watched the feather land at the tip of the stage and went down and grabbed it, and one of the performers looked down at me and winked at me, and I just thought that was magical.
I didn’t realize you were a singer. Is that still a part of your life?
Mostly as an appreciator and a shower performer. I’ve done musicals in my career, but that was a long time ago. But music does play a really big role in the plays I write. And I put into my scripts a lot of stage directions about the sonic aesthetics of the show, what people should be hearing. And I write to music. I am constantly listening to music.
I’ve been on a tear with the jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant. I’ve been listening to her new album, Ghost Song, on repeat. On the flip side, I love the recent Lil Yachty album, which is just stylistically really ambitious. But the album I have on heaviest rotation is Beyoncé’s latest. It puts me in a good space.
Will you be seeing Beyoncé at the Linc in July?
If I can get some tickets! [laughs] I’m on the waiting list for the privilege of buying tickets. I’d spend $500 or more if I had to. I saw her Formation tour, and it was one of the highlights of my life.
Speaking of expensive tickets, is it fair to say that winning the Pulitzer has made you a bit more comfortable?
Sure, but I still have that part of me as an artist that’s like: What if it doesn’t last? This industry is mercurial. So I try to live in the moment but prepare for when it might not be so great.
You won the Pulitzer before Fat Ham even had a live audience. How is that possible?
Back when COVID shut us all down, Blanka Zizka at the Wilma was coming up with ideas to figure out, well, what do we do now? She had the idea of creating this bubble with actors going someplace secluded and filming a play. So we made a film of Fat Ham, and we were able to submit that to the Pulitzers for consideration.
And then the Public Theater in New York decided to produce a staged version for a live audience in 2022.
Correct, and talk about luck. We were just about to go into previews at the Public when the Pulitzer was announced, and the entire run sold out in minutes. I had never seen anything like it.
Is Fat Ham just the right play at the right time? Would it have been as much of a hit 10 years ago?
Nobody would have produced this 10 years ago. This play also ushers in joy and delight, and I think this was something people coming out of 2020 and 2021 wanted to feel. There was joy around the experience of watching the film during the pandemic. And once it was possible to see it with people in the room, people were hungry for that. And it’s just fun.
Right — there are some serious themes here, as you described, but you present them in such a fun way.
Totally. It’s a cookout. There’s games. There’s karaoke. Food. The characters are larger than life. When I decided to tackle Hamlet — the most iconic tragic play ever written in the English language — I said okay, I wanna retell that play, but with a great deal of humor and comedy. I wanted to see if I could undermine tragedy. And — I dunno; I think I had a hunger for a play depicting Black people that didn’t require tragedy for the story to be fulfilling.
It’s been a bit since you acted, in 2018. Miss it?
I miss the community of acting, going to the bar after the show, eating dinner really, really late, building relationships backstage. I don’t miss performing eight times a week. And I do not miss memorizing lines.
The latter being kind of important for an actor.
It’s the major reason I stopped performing. I was doing a show for Theatre Exile in South Philly. The lines were just so difficult for me to remember. My brain couldn’t hold them. I was terrified. I was physically frightened that I was gonna forget the lines, and I have not acted since then.
I just need to keep working, keep digging into what I want to say and how I want to say it and who I want to collaborate with, while maintaining a deep sense of curiosity and never taking for granted that I’ll always be in this position of privilege.”
Do you have a Prince-like vault of unseen works?
I have some. Some are there because they’re just not finished. Some are there because they’re just too personal, and I’m not ready to share them with the world. And hey, some of it is just bad. You have to make bad things to make good things. There is this assumption that one day you’ll stop making bad art, and that’s just not true.
I recently interviewed the authors Buzz Bissinger — also a Pulitzer winner — and Jessica Knoll, both of whom seemed to have this cloud over their heads of these huge successes that they haven’t been able to replicate or exceed. Do you fear that?
My fear isn’t that I won’t make something better than Fat Ham. What I don’t want is to be frozen into a kind of shape, so that everything people expect from me moving forward is this. But the plays I have written are distinct enough that I feel like I can avoid that. Plus, every time I see a production of one of my shows, it is wildly different from another production of the same show. Even one night of a show can be different from the next.
With those books, they are each one thing. But no one is ever encountering my work as a single thing. I just need to keep working, keep digging into what I want to say and how I want to say it and who I want to collaborate with, while maintaining a deep sense of curiosity and never taking for granted that I’ll always be in this position of privilege.
What does your family think of all this Pulitzer and Broadway business?
[Laughs] They are very nonplussed by it. We’ll talk about it on the phone for a minute and then it becomes, “We need you to do this,” and “This happened the other day.” It helps keep me grounded and very rooted.
I’ve yet to win the Pulitzer —
Right. But if I did, I think I’d dart off to Southeast Asia for a few months. How did you celebrate?
I haven’t done a single thing to celebrate other than drink champagne that night. The work just kept on going and keeps on coming. Well, we did take a little vacation, but we both got COVID while on that vacation, so it wasn’t much of a vacation.
You’ve been both a director and a playwright. As a playwright, what do you do when a director approaches a moment in your play in a way you don’t agree with?
I never try to step on their toes. I don’t think it should be like that. And sometimes it makes me think that I didn’t make it clear in my writing what I was trying to say, and I rethink the writing. Ultimately, it’s a collaboration. We can have a difference of opinion, but at the end of the day, the director is guiding the ship. That said, I’ve never had any real contention. I’m knocking on all the wood right now.
What keeps you in Philly? Why not New York? L.A.?
What can I say? I just like it here. Some of my closest relationships are here. I met my husband here. Purchased a home here. I have a community here, a support system. That’s not something I take for granted. I like the art that gets made in Philly. The city itself is beautiful. And I even like the sports teams! I came here not the least bit of a sports fan, and now I love sports, and it’s because I love the city. I also love this city because we do not suffer fools. We are a town that will not take your nonsense.
So you’re here to stay?
I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know that I will always be here.
And if you’re moving in the direction of TV, L.A. is where the work is, of course.
Trust me. That is a refrain I hear over and over. But you know, I am always a little interested in being the exception to the rule. When I was starting out, no one thought this playwright in South Philly would win a Pulitzer — and yet here we are.
James Ijames picks five Hollywood actors he’d love to put in his next big thing.
“I’ve been watching Niecy since she hosted that Clean House reality show. She’s effervescent and naturally funny but also has a great deal of depth. Just watch her in Netflix’s Dahmer series to see what I mean — and When They See Us, about the Central Park Five. And Reno 911. She’s done so much great work in both comedy and drama. She has such range.”
“I loved watching her go from this really young actor — she was wonderful as Akeelah in Akeelah and the Bee — to who she is now, which is a bit of a megastar. She was just dynamite in Jordan Peele’s Nope last year. She has a great deal of subtlety but is also not afraid to play it very big and broad. I love that balance that she can strike.”
Brian Tyree Henry
“Brian and I actually went to college together and did three plays together, including one I wrote. He’s just a remarkable actor, and he was nominated for an Oscar this year for Causeway. His big sort of breakout role was in Atlanta, in which he played Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles, and he’s also one of the Eternals in Marvel’s Eternals.”
“It’s like ‘ingenue’ but spelled differently. I first saw her in Ray as one of Ray Charles’s love interests. She’s also done a great deal of TV, such as Lovecraft Country. And she was on the show Quantico, which wasn’t great, but she was great in it, and I watched almost the whole thing just because of her. I love that she’s chameleonic. She can play anything.”
“He was the father in the Spike Lee film Crooklyn, and that is where it starts for me. Recently, he was in the show that just ended called The Good Fight, a spin-off of The Good Wife. There’s a showmanship about him, a charisma. He is … he is what I would call shiny. His eyes sparkle when he smiles, and he just lights up the screen.”
(For tickets to see the Broadway production of the James Ijames play Fat Ham, go here.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published as “On the Record with James Ijames: On Prizes and Promise” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.