When actor, director, and playwright James Ijames was selected as a Pew Fellow in the Arts in 2015, a panel of experienced arts professionals saw in him the potential to become a force in American theater.
“The panelists could see, as one of them wrote, that James was a gifted storyteller, committed to challenging material, who could go from being sharply critical one moment to outrageously funny the next,” says Paula Marincola, executive director of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. “And that he also had a real knack for action, narrative momentum, and theatricality.”
Each year, the Center awards 12 fellowships of $75,000 to support artists in the Philadelphia region. Ijames is one of 398 people across artistic disciplines—poets, filmmakers, musicians, sculptors, performance artists, and others—who have been named Pew fellows since the program began in 1992.
Today, the Center’s vision of Ijames’ potential has been abundantly realized. In 2022, Ijames won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and on April 12, his prize-winning play, Fat Ham, opened on Broadway for a 12-week run.
Fat Ham is a takeoff on Hamlet, set not in a Danish castle but at a barbecue in the backyard of a Southern family. (Ijames grew up in North Carolina.) The Hamlet-like lead character, Juicy, is described by the New York Theatre Guide as “a Black queer man ... tasked with killing his uncle to avenge his father’s death.” But unlike Hamlet, he “is questioning whether strength or softness makes him a man.” Juicy cannot bring himself to commit violence. Rather than die by the sword, the uncle (somewhat humorously) chokes on a pork bone.
“Winning the Pulitzer as a playwright is like winning an Oscar; it is the highest award for dramatic literature,” says Morgan Green, who directed the original, Pulitzer-winning production of Fat Ham by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. Due to pandemic restrictions, that production couldn’t be performed live onstage. Instead, it was filmed in the backyard and on the porch of a rented house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Schuyler, Virginia, and then watched online by audiences. It is this digital production that was awarded the Pulitzer, the first time a virtual premiere has won. Ijames was already a known entity in theater, Green says, but winning the Pulitzer and seeing your name on Broadway—”that’s another level of success.”
The Center is “thrilled, delighted, excited” for Ijames, Marincola says.
Also thrilled is the theater department at Villanova University, where Ijames is a tenured associate professor. “It’s the first thing on everyone’s lips, for people who know James and even people who don’t,” says Valerie Joyce, the department chair.
Ijames himself says the main impact of receiving the Pulitzer is that more doors are opening for him. It’s a calling card.
“It has made a difference in what people approach me to do and in the kind of theaters that want to present my work; it gets your work into more places,” Ijames says on a chilly morning at a coffee shop in South Philadelphia. He wears round glasses and a wool cap, and hugs the warmth in a paper cup.
He had no expectation of winning the Pulitzer Prize when the Wilma submitted his work, he says, and no one notified him about the progress of the submission. He didn’t know he had won until the prize was announced in May 2022 at Columbia University and his phone “blew up” with congratulatory calls. He later went to New York to be presented with the prize.
Ijames credits the Pew fellowship with having allowed him to concentrate on his playwriting and cut back on his other roles in the theater. He has published and staged a half-dozen well-received plays, including Kill Move Paradise, in which he worked out his anguish over the killing of Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old shot by a White police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014. The play premiered at the National Black Theatre in Harlem in 2017 and has since been reproduced by several theaters around the country.
“I received the Pew fellowship at a moment when I was shifting from being primarily a performer to being primarily a writer and a director,” Ijames says. “It gave me the confidence to start saying ‘no’ to some acting work.”
“I also bought a house,” he says. “I used a portion of the fellowship for a down payment. It gave me a home base, and I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to live, which is always an insecurity for an artist.”
Ijames is one of three Pew fellows to win a Pulitzer. Composer and performer Raven Chacon, currently a fellow-in-residence, received a Pulitzer in Music for Voiceless Mass, also in 2022. And classical composer Jennifer Higdon, one of the early fellows in 1999, received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto. She has also won three Grammys.
Marincola has described the Pew fellowship as a wellspring for artistic creativity. Since the start of the program in 1992, Pew fellows have gone on to be MacArthur fellows and Guggenheim fellows, in addition to Pulitzer recipients.
“For us, it is really a vindication of our belief that artists need time and resources to be able to do their work,” Marincola says. “In the end, it pays off.”
Saheem Ali, director of Fat Ham at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, says he met Ijames when he directed another of his plays, Moon Man Walk, at the National Black Theatre in 2017. That play premiered in Philadelphia in 2015, the year Ijames received the Pew fellowship, and it, too, has also been widely reproduced.
The state of drama on Broadway in 2023 is “precarious,” Ali says. Audiences have returned to live theater post-pandemic, but mostly to see musicals and revivals. Some new dramas have struggled and closed earlier than expected. Original dramas such as Fat Ham, he says, are rare gems.
Yet Ali says it’s an exciting time in the theater. New voices—young voices, diverse voices—are being heard. Ijames, he says, “is telling us about Blackness and queerness. He is shedding light on a segment of society that does not get the stage very often.”
“Stories that center on those two forms of identity tend to be really tragic,” Ali says. “Black stories and queer stories tend to have a lot of weight and despondency and tragedy to them. But those stories are not the only stories. James is flipping the script.”
“I prefer happy endings,” Ijames says of his writing. “There are plenty of sad endings. There is plenty of tragedy. I don’t have to contribute to that as an artist. I am going to watch those [tragic] shows, and I am going to cry. But when I sit down at the computer, I am going to write something that is different. I’m adding to the balancing act.”
Fat Ham, like Hamlet, is tragic. But it’s also filled with warmth and affection for the complicated relationships in families. “Aren’t all families dysfunctional?” Ijames seems to ask. Good drama, like stand-up comedy, can come from pain and even cruelty, he says. The humor is what distracts from pain. “When someone slips on a banana peel, it’s funny, it just is—as long as it’s not you.”
In mid-20th century America, playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were celebrities, known to the public like athletes or actors. Playwrights today might not achieve that level of notoriety, Ijames says, but some—he names Aleshea Harris, Will Arbery, and Antoinette Nwandu—are, indeed, public figures.
Many of those vintage playwrights also came to do work in Hollywood, and the same is true today, because there’s so much drama on television that requires good writing.
“We are invited to join a golden age of television. Pretty much every playwright I know is doing some type of TV work,” Ijames says. “We are in a moment when the writing on television is exceptional—I think in large part because there are a lot of playwrights in those TV writing rooms. You are making this popular form so that you can sit down and write the plays you really want to write.”
“I think we are seeing a bit of a renaissance of the American play,” Ijames says.
He sees himself as a disciplined artist. He has to be, given his responsibilities. Besides writing and sometimes directing, the Morehouse College graduate with a master’s degree in fine arts from Temple University carries a full teaching load at Villanova.
Green, the Fat Ham director at the Wilma, has seen him hard at work. “He gets up early to write, and then he’s doing meetings and teaching all day, and then he stays up late at night to write,” she says. “It is inspiring.”
At Villanova, Ijames is a popular teacher, says Joyce, the theater department chair. “He has entirely revamped the way we teach acting. He teaches his students, ‘You are enough— whatever you bring to a character, whatever you bring to a production—you are enough.’”
This confidence-giving, she says, has “transformed the way students think about what can be a cruel and unforgiving profession.”
“I say that all the time,” Ijames adds. “I tell the kids that their life experience, their voice, their body, their gender, their sexual identity—all of them are important to play a role in the theater. You don’t need to be somebody else. You are enough if you bring your full self to it.”
Ijames is 42. He grew up in Bessemer, North Carolina, a half-hour from the South Carolina border. His early life played out in an extended Black family and the Black church. “When I was young,” he says, “I wanted to be a preacher.” Fat Ham is a love song about Southern barbecue culture, with detailed depiction of meats and potato salads. He doesn’t like much of what he sees in Southern politics, he says, and he hasn’t always felt welcome as a queer Black man. “But it’s where I’m from; it’s a place that means a lot to me.”
After the Wilma’s digital version, Fat Ham was staged at The Public Theater in New York. The whole cast from that production appeared in the Broadway production, in which Marcel Spears, co-star of the CBS comedy series “The Neighborhood,” plays the lead.
“It’s a big deal to be on Broadway,” says Ali, who also directed Fat Ham at The Public Theater, “It’s a first for me, and it’s a first for James. Some things get written and produced with an eye on the commercial. This was far from that. No one who was working on this imagined it would become something that would be on Broadway. That is the magic of the theater sometimes.”
Drawing on his church experience, Ijames is working with Ali on an upcoming play about a gospel quartet set in the 1940s. He also recently worked as a writer, director, and narrator on an exhibit at the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia for which The Pew Arts & Heritage Center was a major funder. The exhibit, “POOL: A Social History of Segregation,” explores the history of Black swimmers being turned away from public pools through archival photographs, films, and personal stories. It began a second run at the interpretive center in March and will run through September.
“James really used the fellowship to deepen his practice,” Marincola says. “I think we have contributed in a substantial way to the growth and vitality of the Philadelphia artist community.”
It seems that Ijames would agree. “The Pew fellowship gave me a whole lot of freedom,” he says.
Ijames says he initially thought that winning a Pulitzer Prize—and the thrill of being on Broadway—would change him somehow and propel him sky high. Instead, he says, the recognition grounded him. It made him go back and reread books he had read about playwriting. It made him work even harder. “It rooted me.”
Tom Infield is a longtime Philadelphia journalist and frequent contributor to Trust.
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