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 script and following a streaming production mounted last year by the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. And on Thursday, performances of the first production before live audiences are scheduled to begin Off Broadway at the Public Theater, in a coproduction with the National Black Theater.

“Fat Ham” was written by James Ijames, 41, who grew up in Bessemer City, NC, and was educated at Morehouse College and Temple University (he studied acting). He now lives in Philadelphia, where he is one of several co-artistic directors experimenting with a shared leadership model at the Wilma Theater; his other notable works his 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 were announced, I spoke to Ijames (his surname is pronounced “imes”) about the play and the award. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

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

“Fat Ham” is a very loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that has been transported to the American South, and it takes place in the backyard of a family that owns a barbecue restaurant. At its core, the play is about how this Hamlet character, whose name is Juicy, is meeting and 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. It’s a comedy in the end, so I take “Hamlet” and I essentially make it not tragic anymore.

Where did the idea come from?

I just have always loved “Hamlet.” When I was in college, I did a truncated production of it. And the scene when we first meet Hamlet, in the court, I did that scene, and it was just like, “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?” And I wanted to take that and bring it a little closer to my experience by putting it in the mouths of people that look like me and sound like me, that have my rhythms and eat the kind of food that I grew up eating. And I think it illuminates something about the original.

Obviously, we’ve been living through a pretty unusual period, and you have won this prize after a virtual production. Tell me about that.

We basically got Airbnbs and put all of the cast and the crew in a bubble, and they filmed it over the course of 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.

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

The actors can feed off of the reactions from the audience that they hear. So I’m really excited about having that experience. I also did a few tweaks on the play because it’s moved from the digital format to the live format. So I’m curious to see how that meets audiences.

Why are you a playwright?

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When I was about 13, my parents split up and I had a lot of anger and frustration, and one of the ways that my family tried to encourage me to work through that was to write. And so I started writing little skits and plays, and I just have been writing in dramatic form ever since. I think it’s a way for me to metabolize all the things that I’m thinking about or curious about.

Are you all stage, or do you write for TV or film as well?

During the pandemic, I started to do a bit of dipping my toe into TV and film and have a few things that are in the works that I can’t really talk about.

Meanwhile, you’ve taken on this position as a co-artistic director at the Wilma. Tell me about how shared leadership is working out?

It’s been good. Shared leadership is always tricky, and you’re always negotiating, making sure everyone has input. It takes longer to make decisions and to work through things. But ultimately, I think it makes the organization stronger. Everything that we’ve done as a shared leadership has been managing and in some cases surviving a global pandemic. So I think we’ll learn a lot more about how we feel about the form next year.

What is the significance of this award for you?

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.

What’s the case you would make to people wondering whether to come see this play?

I’d say, come and see it and have a laugh. Come and see it and maybe see a version of yourself reflected back to you that you’ve never seen before. I’d say, come and see it because it is trying to capture the journey from pain to pleasure. Come to see it if they’re interested in transformation, how people can become new, how people can become better versions of themselves.

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