James Ijames, Philly Playwright, reacts to winning the Pulitzer

Questions and answers

“We drank champagne last night,” the South Philly resident told us less than 24 hours after hearing the news. “But now I have to go to work.”

James Ijames, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Fatty haman adaptation of Hamlet / Photo courtesy of James Ijames

James Ijames’ Monday probably went a little better than yours. That’s because on Monday, the 41-year-old South Philadelphia playwright found out he’d won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fatty hamhis interpretation of Hamlet. The show aired via the Wilma Theater in 2021. That’s right: Fatty ham didn’t even see a live audience – until this week. We caught up with Ijames on Tuesday morning to find out more.

James, I have to say I did do not expect you to email me by 8am the day after you win the damn Pulitzer.
[Laughs] I was up at six o’clock. I’ve been an early riser pretty much since the pandemic. The pandemic has really changed my sleep schedule. And I have a rehearsal today, so I have to do some paperwork before that.

It sounds so boring. This do you do within 24 hours of receiving life-changing news? Didn’t have a party?
My husband invited Akeem Davis and Taysha Canales. We drank champagne last night. But now I have to go to work.

How do you know they won the Pulitzer? It’s like when you get a big envelope from a university you applied to? Just an email?
I knew they were going to make the announcement at 3 p.m. yesterday on a stream. And I actively avoided it. I said I just wouldn’t be in front of a computer. I distracted myself, did some work, and turned on the TV in the background. Then I got the call from Leigh Goldenbergwho watched the stream.

So, Fatty ham. Tell us about it.
Fatty ham is a very, very loose adaptation of Hamlet, transported to the backyard of a family that owns a barbecue restaurant in North Carolina. So I moved the Court from Denmark to that location. And it’s about how families can undo cycles of abuse and violence and break free from inherited trauma by choosing joy and pleasure.

And am I right in saying that this show has never seen a live audience?
Yeah, so the Wilma decided to video-capture it, and it aired last year. I have so much appreciation for the Wilmas, because they could have said, it’s too hard, let’s not do it. But we found a way to make it work. We’ve created a cast and crew bubble at select Airbnbs in Virginia. It all happened in four weeks.

Why can’t I stream it now? It seems like it would be a good time to put it back online.
[Laughs] Equity [the labor union for theater workers] has a ground rules and limitations on how you can stream. We could only do it for a while. But now I think we have to figure out how to do it again. But he possesses continued his life through Wilma’s education program. Schools can use it for educational purposes, we just can’t sell it. So many children have seen it.

And now let’s talk about timing, you open Fatty ham to public theater in New York this week, right? First time in front of a live audience, days after scoring the Pulitzer.
We go to previews on Thursday, and from what I understand, it’s totally sell.

Was it sold before 3pm on Monday?
[Laughs] No.

You said you have a rehearsal today. Is it for Fatty ham.
No. I have three things going right now. Fatty ham to the public. And then in Philadelphia, Azuka just opened my play Reverie the Saturday. And I lead Fairview, another Pulitzer winner, at the Wilma. So I bounced around a lot between Philadelphia and New York.

Tell us about these pieces.
Fairview, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, is a play about perception and identity. At first, we expect to see a comedy drama about a black family in a suburban home preparing for the birthday of the grandmother, the family matriarch. But as the play progresses, everything changes. There are unexpected visitors who come in and change the structure and change the narrative of the room. And that’s all I want to give.

No spoilers!
Exactly. No spoilers.

And Reverie?
Reverie is a play about mourning. A father who has just lost his son finds a book in his son’s room and there is an address in it. So he shows up at the address and finds who he thinks his son’s boyfriend is and they end up having a great night together and becoming what the other person needs. It’s a very different game for me. Very calm and delicate. Not very theatrical. A very tender play on mourning and healing.

So what’s next in the world of James Ijames, like you need more to do?
We go on vacation in June and July to visit my husband’s family in Florida and mine in North Carolina. At the end of June, I am preparing a new play which has no end yet. [Laughs]. And then school resumes — I’m an associate professor at Villanova. So there really isn’t much time for anything else.

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