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After a sold-out run at The Public Theater, Fat Ham transfers to Broadway for a limited engagement at the American Airlines Theatre. This interview was conducted during the show's Off-Broadway run.
How his preoccupation with legacy, inheritance and language inspired this acclaimed play
Timing is everything in comedy, so it's fitting that James Ijames' blazingly funny and profound Fat Ham won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama a few days before the play had its in-person premiere at The Public Theater, where it runs through July 31. Originally seen as a digital production in 2021 at Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, where Ijames is a co-artistic director, Fat Ham is a modern-day response to Shakespeare's Hamlet about a Black and queer Southern college student named Juicy who decides to break the cycle of generational trauma and violence by choosing pleasure over harm. During one deliciously messy backyard barbecue celebrating the nuptials of Juicy's widowed mother Tedra and her brother-in-law-turned-husband Rev, Fat Ham offers plenty to chew on, including hearty laughs, surrealistic sequences and family meshugas.
While Ijames loves director Saheem Ali's acclaimed mounting, which is coproduced by the National Black Theatre and earned raves from critics and audiences alike, he hasn't had much time to revel in accolades. He's been busy back in Philly at the Wilma directing a production of Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview while putting the finishing touches on his new play about the challenges of gentrification, Good Bones, which is set to premiere next spring at The Public with Ali once again directing.
Despite his packed schedule, Ijames took time to speak with TDF Stages about being "a good steward" of Black culture, the importance of underexplaining and the expansiveness of the Black experience.
Juan Michael Porter II: Why did you set Fat Ham at a barbecue?
James Ijames: I knew that setting it in that space meant that there was the potential for a lot of things to happen. People play spades, get engaged, get into very intense arguments about who made what dish and love on each other at barbecues. It's also a space of remembering, like, "Do you remember when you were little, and you did this?" I grew up having the same sort of anticipation about a barbecue as I did about Christmas morning because I knew the aunts and uncles and cousins were going to be together; there was going to be a real family community created.
Porter II: Did you worry about what you were revealing about Black culture in Fat Ham, or that white people wouldn't get it?
Ijames: I often send plays to my friend Carl Clemons-Hopkins [an actor currently starring on Hacks] to read to tell me if I'm completely off base. In an early draft, I was explaining a lot of things and trying to make them legible to white people. Around that same time, I listened to an interview where Toni Morrison was talking about Black writers feeling like we have to write past Black people to the white person, over the shoulder of the reader. I was explaining things that Black people just understand and Carl was like, "You don't need to do that. Just write the play." No one explains gentility or poverty to me when I watch Pride and Prejudice. I use context clues to find my way through that material. I'm never asking the writer to make it plain for me. So, at a certain point, I just stopped thinking about whether or not white people could get it. I wanted to talk to Black people as closely as I could in our language and in our colloquial manners. Things that we find funny or touching, like making a plate of food for someone, which in some circles is seen as a menial thing. I wanted to position it in this play as an act of love—"I want to make sure that you're eating." So, I don't feel like I'm revealing anything. But if I am, maybe that's a good thing.
Porter II: I appreciate that you distinguish between variations of the n-word within Black communities, even though many people see it simply as the worst word possible.
Ijames: Yeah, n*gga is very complex for me, so I use it sparingly and in really intentional ways, usually to clarify seriousness. When Tio says it to Juicy, it's like, "You're not listening. I need to let you know that I need you to understand this thing." When used in love, it can pull someone closer. Punk was another word that I was on the fence about. In some previews, people were like, "What does that mean?" It's so Southern and Black. And I was like, "Oh, this is great." I thought it was important for the characters to be speaking in a really coded language that they understand. It doesn't matter if anybody else does. And then the actress who plays Tedra—Nikki Crawford, who's a genius—figured out a way to signal to the audience that this is what we're talking about. We're still not going to explain what it means or where it comes from because Juicy's response should be enough for you to understand.
There are plays where I don't use charged language in that way at all. I've written a few plays where one of my rules was I couldn't use profanity; I had to use other words. But Fat Ham is a world where these people call each other motherfuckers. These people pray and then curse. I needed to be true to that thing that happens in Black communities where the sacred and the secular are moving in tandem with each other.
Porter II: I really appreciated your point about punk, which in the '50s would have been sissy and when I was growing up was f*ggot. It's so generational. I see what you're doing with that but I'm wondering, what are you doing with this depiction of Blackness?
Ijames: That is a very good question. I think I'm trying to be a good steward of Black culture. I am very invested in the historical depictions and shape of Blackness as well as the contemporary understanding of Blackness and how they meet. Because they're always in conversation with each other, like you just said, engaging with someone in a 1960s or 1970s way. Those patterns of speech are why I love writing in the dramatic form. Speech is always changing, and the way a person speaks dictates when they are along a time continuum. I'm trying to handle that with care and admiration. Like, I have no shame around people who say, "They'd be over there all the time." I think some people are like, "Be isn't a verb." But "be" is a verb!
Porter II: Yes. I've seen many people lose their composure when they hear a Black person say, "Y'all be doing the most," and yet those same individuals consider "to be, or not to be" to be the greatest phrase in the English language!
Ijames: Right. I'm really preoccupied with legacy and inheritance. I think about the things that I've inherited that I want to keep and what I want to let go. All of that is at the heart of Fat Ham. This is what I was raised with, and I've picked up some bad choices. So, what am I going to do? Am I going to do that, too? And what do I leave? What am I actively setting in place for when I'm not here anymore—because I will not be here one day. Not that I need people to remember me forever and ever, but if people do, I want it to be a good thing.
I write about Black people because I want to be a good steward of our stories and our culture and our history. And so, each play is trying to get a little better at that. And then some plays are not about that at all. They're about people hooking up with each other. Because that's also part of it. Our stories of jest and the "bad" things.
I wrote a play early in my career that was about people living in a house and the major conflict was whether or not a couple wanted to stay married. Everyone that read it was like, "There's no action. Nothing's happening." And I was like, "It's a marriage. And that's okay." Then the next play was more of a kick in the face and people were like, "Oh, this is great. This is it. This is the thing you need to write!" And my response was, "We can just be in a play where we're like, 'Do we want to be married?'"
Porter II: Ingmar Bergman.
Ijames: Hello?! Hello? A nice little quiet play about internal turmoil.
Porter II: We can be quiet or extravagant. Looking at this production, I loved that director Saheem Ali gave Juicy a punk music moment with the Radiohead song "Creep," which was so brilliant. It took me back to seeing the band Living Colour perform "New Jack Theme" at the 1991 Grammys. That has me wondering if you ever get caught up in expecting to see certain things in different productions of your plays, and how much input you give to your directors, like Ali?
Ijames: Saheem is a friend of mine. I am in his heart, and he is in mine. He's a collaborator who I will always reach out to. I didn't get to see the production when it was being staged because I was back and forth to Philly. I'd come in for a rehearsal and say, "Wow, that's incredible." With the "Creep" moment, the gift that he gave me was saying, "We have to get to that second verse. I want to hear the whole song. Trust me." And then I listened to those lyrics again, and with the second verse, it was like, oh my god, this is actually the most important verse of this song for this character. The words, "I want a perfect body" make complete sense. And the fact that he drops into the space of imagining is one of the most important things that we can do in the theatre. I mean, the whole idea of theatre is: "I will come into this space. We'll pretend for the next 90 minutes to four hours that these people are real and they're doing their thing that is consequential." It is all imagination in a collective space that we're all agreeing to believe. So, I love that Saheem pushed the limits of what the characters were even imagining for themselves.
I'm a very generous playwright. I won't write, "On the bookcase, there are five volumes of such and such and such and there's a vase in the corner that is the color of the quality of light at dawn." Like, that's beautiful, but it feels really novelistic to me. When I read that in a book, it helps me imagine my version of what that is. But we have to realize it in the theatre. So, I leave a lot of space for the genius of other people.
The stage direction at the end of Fat Ham is, "The play cracks open into a celebration of the feminine." From that comes this event that Saheem has crafted. In an earlier production, it was the same thing. But we shot live in the backyard of an Airbnb, so we couldn't quite have the festival that we have at The Public. But the moment was still true: suddenly everything melted into something else.
And then there was a song that was written for the production that the actor lip-synchs to, so I wanted to leave enough space for that so that I could walk into any production and go, "I wonder what they did with it?" Because I will never know what to expect. All I give them is the gesture of, "It should do this and this. Here are some ideas." Maybe somebody does this or that, but it has to be a celebration. That's one of the things I love about being a writer for theatre: every time someone does your play, you don't know what they're gonna do.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Juan Michael Porter II is the staff writer for TheBody.com and a contributor to TDF Stages, Did They Like It?, SF Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, American Theatre, them, Into More and SYFY Wire. He is a National Critics Institute and Poynter Power of Diverse Voices Fellow. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: James Ijames.