James Ijames on Winning a Pulitzer and Making ‘Hamlet’ a Comedy

The play “Fat Ham,” a comedic riff on “Hamlet” set at a Southern barbecue, hasn’t even had an in-person production yet because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But on Monday, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, based on its screenplay and following a streaming production put together last year by the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. And on Thursday, performances of the first production in front of live audiences are set to begin Off Broadway at the Public Theatre, in a co-production with the National Black Theatre.

“Fat Ham” was written by 41-year-old James Ijames, who grew up in Bessemer City, North Carolina, and was educated at Morehouse College and Temple University (he studied acting). He now lives in Philadelphia, where he is one of many co-artistic directors experimenting with a shared leadership model at the Wilma Theater; his other notable works include “Kill Move Paradise”, “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever”, and “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington”.

About an hour after the Pulitzers announced, I spoke to Ijames (his last name is pronounced “imes”) about the play and the price. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

So for those of our readers who have never heard of “Fat Ham”, what is it?

“Fat Ham” is a very loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that was transported to the southern United States and is set in the backyard of a family who owns a barbecue restaurant. At its core, the play is about how this Hamlet character, whose name is Juicy, encounters and undermines her family’s cycles of trauma and violence. It’s really about how he brings the rest of his family with him to realize that they don’t have to continue these cycles of abuse and violence, and that they can do something completely different from their life. It’s a comedy in the end, so I’m taking “Hamlet” and basically making it no longer tragic.

Where did the idea come from?

I’ve always loved “Hamlet”. When I was in college, I made a truncated production of it. And the scene where we first met Hamlet, in court, I did this scene, and it was like, ‘That’s such a beautiful scene. I think the whole piece could exist within that moment. All the players are in the same room together, what if everything just broke out in this court right now, so the whole sweep of Hamlet was in one scene? And I wanted to take that and bring it a little bit closer to my experience by putting it in the mouths of people who look and sound like me, who have my rhythms and eat the kind of food that I grew up eating. And I think that sheds some light on the original.

Obviously, we had a rather unusual time, and you won this award after a virtual production. Tell me about it.

We basically got Airbnbs and put all the cast and crew in a bubble, and they filmed it for a month. It turned out really beautiful and we were all very proud of it. And I’m really excited for people to see a performance of it in person.

How do you think the in-person experience will differ from the streaming experience?

Actors can feed off the audience reactions they hear. So I’m really excited to have this experience. I also made some adjustments to the game because it went from digital to live format. So I’m curious to see how it meets the audience.

Why are you a playwright?

When I was about 13 my parents separated and I had a lot of anger and frustration, and one of the ways my family tried to encourage me to get over that was to write. And so I started writing little sketches and plays, and since then I’ve just been writing in dramatic form. I think it’s a way for me to metabolize all the things I think about or are interested in.

Are you all on stage, or do you also write for television or cinema?

During the pandemic, I’ve started to delve into TV and film a bit and I have a few things going on that I can’t really talk about.

In the meantime, you have taken on this post of co-artistic director at Wilma. Tell me about how shared leadership works?

Its been good. Shared leadership is always tricky, and you always negotiate, making sure everyone has a say. It takes more time to make decisions and to work on things. But at the end of the day, I think it makes the organization stronger. Everything we have done as shared leadership has managed and in some cases survived a global pandemic. So I think we’ll learn a lot more about how we feel about the form next year.

What does this award mean to you?

I love that people who write for a living saw something I wrote and saw something beautiful in it. I like writers. I like poets. I love journalists. I love fiction writers. This is why I am always very honored to be in the company of people curious about ideas.

How would you treat people who are wondering if they should come and see this play?

I would say, come see it and have a laugh. Come see it and maybe you’ll see a version of yourself you’ve never seen before. I would say, come see it because it tries to capture the journey from pain to pleasure. Come see it if they are interested in transformation, how people can become new, how people can become better versions of themselves.

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