Barrymore-Winning Actor James Ijames Puts On A New Hat: Playwright
James Ijames wears a ton of hats: Barrymore-winning actor, director, and now playwright. His play, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, has its world premiere staging at Flashpoint Theatre Company in June. The always charming Philadelphia resident took some time to chat with us about his work as a writer, his definition of America’s “original sin,” and why he’s just scandalized by the television series Scandal.
Ticket: The title of your play, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington is a mouthful (I’d dare people to say it three times fast). Tell me how you came about naming this work and what moved you to write the piece.
James Ijames: The play had a few titles before I settled on the current one. I wanted the title to tantalize and be evocative of the style and energy of the play. It’s a romp and at times a bit of a farce. I knew I wanted to write a play set during the slavery era that depicted the slaves as clever, powerful, soulful and resourceful instead of simply property. I also wanted to write a play that was incredibly theatrical and fantastic that featured actors of color, which is something I crave but don’t often see. I stumbled upon a letter from Abigail Adams addressed to Mary Cranch about Martha Washington’s fear that her slaves were going to kill her in order to obtain their freedom and from there, the play just poured forth.
T: I know Flashpoint Theatre Company, who is producing the work, says the play explores “America’s Original Sin.”Unpack that for me. Was that your intention when you wrote the piece, or did it sort of evolve?
J.I.: I certainly set out to write a play that explored slavery and freedom in American history, but when we talk about “America’s Original Sin”I think it’s broader and more dangerous than talking simply in terms of slavery. America’s Original Sin is America’s inability see a segment of its society as not fully human or valuable. It continues to this day. To say the original sin of America is slavery is to discount the decimation, subjugation and removal of the native populations before, during, and after the forming of this nation. It discounts Japanese internment or the Chinese Exclusion Act. The sin is the system in place that makes these things happen. It’s the ability for a person to, very easily, stop seeing someone else’s humanity in order to get what they want. It goes beyond race to include class, gender, sexual orientation, region, age, health, and beauty. It is very easy for Americans to make another human being into a monster so we can storm the castle and kill that monster.
T: Many people know you for your performances as an actor, and you have the Barrymore to prove that. How do you change your creative hats between writing and performing, and how does acting help you write?
J.I.: I really enjoy the changing of hats! I find that one “hat” feeds the other. If I’m directing I don’t stop being an actor; if I’m sitting down to write I don’t cease to exist as an actor. I have found acting makes me a better writer. I think about a character as a writer exactly the way I think about it as an actor, which, I think, makes my characters more full and round and specific. I finished the first draft of Miz Martha while I was in performance of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches at the Wilma Theatre in 2012. So much of the theatrical flare of Miz Martha is influenced heavily by Kushner’s style of writing. I hope that each playwright that I have the pleasure of working on will influence my writing. I’ve worked on everything from August Wilson to William Shakespeare to Anton Chekhov to Colman Domingo. Each one gives me a kick in the pants to keep pushing. That’s a really long way of saying it all works together to make me.
T: When you give your play to someone to direct, I know people say it’s like giving up a baby. What’s that like for you?
J.I.: Sometimes it’s scary to submit something you have written. Writing is much more personal and transparent for me than acting. Acting is about me becoming someone else or a larger version of myself; writing is about revealing my heart. It’s about being bare, so it can be very scary. In this case, the case of Miz Martha, I feel completely at ease. I’m putting the play in great hands with Flashpoint and Ed Sobel. They know how to work on a new play and they know how to make great theatre. I also have a terrific cast, some of whom have been with the play since it’s developmental stage, so this experience has been very exciting and rewarding. I’m smiling a lot these days. I feel like a proud papa.
T: Who or what are your guilty pop culture pleasures right now? Who is giving performances that you admire or love or are living for?
J.I.: I think if I weren’t a theatre artist, I would want to be a pop culture critic, sort of like bell hooks or Camille Paglia. I love it! It excites me. I’m a huge Scandal fan, which is currently on hiatus for the summer so I’ve been introducing myself to new TV shows. I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones and this PBS show called Mr. Selfridge. They are both so decadent. Mad Men and Drag Race are back, so they are keeping me afloat until the fall. I find that I listen to more music in the summer than watch TV so I’ve been buying a lot of new music. The new Tune-Yards and Little Dragon are on regular rotation along with Emily King, Bells Atlas, and, of course, Beyoncé. In terms of performances, Joe Morton on Scandal is breath taking as is Kerry Washington. I recently binge watched True Detective, and Woody Harrelson on that show is a miracle. Stunning work.
The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington plays at The Off Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom Street, in June; more information can be located via Flashpoint Theatre Company’s webpage.