Out Playwright James Ijames 'Overwhelmed' at Pulitzer Prize Win

Tuesday May 10, 2022

James Ijames
James Ijames  (Source:Wilma Theater)

"Fat Ham" may be the first play to win the Pulitzer Prize without a production. Out playwright James Ijames' play, a comedic riff on "Hamlet" set at a Southern barbecue, was first seen in a streamed production by Philadelphia's Wilma Theater a year ago (read a rave review from the New York Times at this link). On Thursday, the play opens to the public in a limited run through June 12 at New York's Public Theater in a coproduction with the National Black Theater.

The Times spoke with Ijames about the play not long after he was awarded the Pulitzer on Monday, May 9. The 41-year old now lives in Philadelphia, but grew up in Bessemer City, N.C., and was educated at Morehouse College and Temple University, where he studied acting. The Times writes "he is one of several 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.'" (Note: his surname is pronounced "imes")

He tells the Times that he takes "Hamlet" and "essentially make it not tragic anymore." He sets the play in the backyard of a family that owns a barbecue restaurant in the American South. His Hamlet stand-in is a black queer man named Juicy, and the story follows how he is "undermining his family's cycles of trauma and violence. It's really about how he brings the rest of his family with him to that realization that they don't have to continue these cycles of abuse and violence, and that they can do something completely different with their lives."

He said he always loved "Hamlet" and remembered doing a truncated version of it while in college. He always loved the scene where Hamlet is introduced at court. "This is such a great scene. I think the whole play could exist inside of this moment. All of the players are in the same room together, and what if everything just erupted in this court in this moment, so the whole sweep of 'Hamlet' was in one scene?" he explains. But he also wanted his characters to sound like "people that look like me and sound like me."

He said that the virtual production was filmed over a month. "It turned out really beautifully, and we were all really proud of it. And I'm really thrilled for people to see an in-person performance of it."

He has also tweaked the play since its digitized presentation and looks forward to seeing how it plays in front of a live audience.

Pulitzer Prize Administrator Marjorie Miller described the play as "a funny, poignant play that deftly transposes Hamlet to a family barbecue in the American South to grapple with questions of identity, kinship, responsibility and honesty," the Daily News reports.

"I'm quite overwhelmed and so honored to be selected for this year's Pulitzer Prize in Drama," Ijames, 41, told the Daily News on Monday. "I'm humbled to be in the company of so many writers I've studied and admired. This play is a love letter to where I come from and the people who raised me and still love and support me!"

Ijames added to the Times about his win: "I love that people who write for a living saw something that I wrote and they saw something of beauty in it. I love writers. I love poets. I love journalists. I love fiction writers. And so I am always really honored when I get to be in the company of people who are curious about ideas."