James Ijames on “Fat Ham,” the South, and Embodying the Story

Imagine Shakespeare’s Hamlet reenvisioned through a Black, Queer lens and set at a Southern barbecue. That’s exactly what North Carolina-born, Philadelphia-based, and New York Times-lauded playwright James Ijames did. The play, Fat Ham, produced by The Wilma Theater, is available for streaming starting April 29 until May 23. Ijames recently chatted with the SRB about his fascinating piece and the legacy of being a Southern writer in the 21st Century.

I want to know more about your Given Circumstances, as we say in the theatre. Where did you grow up? Study? And where are you now?

Well, I am originally from a tiny town in North Carolina, called Bessemer City, that looks like Mayberry. It has the Main Street with all the little shops and City Hall. I grew up there and was heavily involved in arts and performing in school. I was in band, and choir – I got really intense about choir in high school. I went to college in Georgia at Morehouse College to get a degree in music with a concentration in Choral Music Conducting, ‘cause that’s what I thought I wanted to do. I got [to Morehouse] and really quickly discovered that [I] didn’t want to [do that] – it was awful, I hated it. And my voice teacher at the time who was very nice but also could see that I was miserable, was like, “They’re doing a musical over across the way at Clark Atlanta. They’re doing Once on This Island.  You should audition for it. See if you like that.” I think he could tell that that’s what I should be doing. And I did. And that was the bug – I got in and it was over. I was a Theatre major. And then I went on to get an MFA in Acting from Temple University. That’s what brought me to Philly. I’ve been here doing anything that people will let me get away with for almost twenty years.

How did you move from all of that performing into writing?

Writing actually came first. I wrote a play for the first time when I was thirteen because my grandmother made me. She said, this is how they work, the name goes here, then what they say goes next, and if they do something, you write that in between. I was like, “That’s weird…Okay, I’ll do that.” Then she took it and they did it at church and I saw people say the things that I wrote. I was like, “Oh. This is amazing.” It never was something that I thought that I could do for a living until I got to college and thought I kind of want to do this.

The only reason I don’t have an MFA in Playwriting is because I had an Acting teacher [say] that I probably wasn’t going to get into an MFA Playwriting program right out of school. But he said that I [would] get into an Acting program [which would put me] in classes with playwrights, that [I would] learn about Playwriting from those classes and that’s what I did. I’m kind of glad that that’s the route that I took because I think I’m a really different writer because I’ve acted for so long. [Actors] think about texts differently – character and stage directions really different from the way that someone who’s been a playwright their whole career thinks about these things. I always lead from curiosity because that’s where actors lead from. “What if I tried this?” It’s so open-ended. It’s interpretive in a way. [My writing] gives people the planks to build whatever they want to build.

What devoured your free time as a child and/or younger person?

I watched a lot of television. I had a little black and white television in my bedroom my entire childhood. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it was there. And my family had things that we watched as a family – we watched The Cosby Show, we watched A Different World; Martin and Living Single [when those] came along. (laughs) We watched TV with Black people in it. You know? If there were Black people in it, we huddled around the TV and watched it. Now that I think back on it, my family’s obsession with television comes from the fact that they just didn’t see Black people on TV for most of their lives and so [when] there was all of these Black people they wanted us to watch it.

Do you think that TV in your bedroom is why you’re a playwright, versus something like a novelist? That you started to hear story in dialogue?

Yeah. I think that’s absolutely it. That and I come from a family of people who recount things that they’ve experienced. Some people will just tell the story – “This happened and then this happened and then this happened” and then they go on. But I come from a family of people who will go, “So I was in the line behind Helen the other day, you know Helen. And she turned around and she was like, ‘Cherylene, I haven’t seen you in a while!’” They take on the characteristics, the voice of the people they’re telling the story about. That feels utterly natural to me – to tell a story by embodying the truth of the thing that you’re trying to get at. It also lends itself to exaggeration.

How does having grown up in the South inform your aesthetic as an art-maker and a writer?

There’s a few things in particular. Growing up in a Black church with all of the history, all of the style, all of the cultural idiosyncrasies of that institution has had a big impact on how I think about what theatricality can do. Also [creating] a person’s character through their speech – as opposed to me describing [the character] is like this. Also coming out of this same tradition of storytelling, embodying the story, I feel like people in the South are constantly using language to identify themselves, which gets us in trouble sometimes too. I will say, I don’t know that’s always a good thing. But it’s like the things that I say are who I am, the things that I think are who I am.

Musicality of language, for example, is something that’s often attributed to Southern writers. And while I think that is absolutely true and I feel like that is something that I use and play with and think about, it’s no less musical than someone who is writing out of, let’s say, an urban Jewish lived experience. That has a different kind of music but it’s no less musical. But there’s this nostalgia thing that we want to paint over the South to make that outhouse look better. (laughs) You know, we want to spruce it up! The genteelness of the way someone speaks or we swoon when someone has this dialect that reminds us of the Antebellum South which I’m like, “Alright, okay…” The hanging on to, for example, the image of the Confederate flag is just perplexing to me. I understand it in theory. Also, I’m utterly perplexed by it and deeply offended by it at the same time. There is this sort of watercolor that is painted over anything that is written or made by somebody from the South. So that we can deal with the fact that it’s also growing out of a historical tradition that has problems.

Press material for Fat Ham call the play an adaptation of Hamlet. What was it about Hamlet that was begging to be explored?

I really love Hamlet. Before I was in the musical in college, I was in a directing scene for a student from Hamlet. I played Hamlet in it. That actually was the first time I truly acted in anything. It was the “though yet of Hamlet, our dear brother’s death. The memory be green…” And I’ve just always loved that scene, where Hamlet is legitimately grieving. He’s having a really difficult time with what’s going on and honestly, as an audience member, I’m like, “Same, this is weird!” (laughs) “Yeah, you’re right, friend. You’re absolutely right!” And that’s not without complication. He does some not great stuff over the course of the play. But we do sort of pretty instantly go, I get you.

That scene in particular I’ve always really loved because it’s an opportunity for Gertrude and Claudius to make it better and they just choose not to. [There are] several moments where either one of those two humans could have done something differently and the rest of the play would have been different. There’d have been a lot less death. I always said, if I worked on a production, that’d be something I’d bring up. I was like, what would a production I directed look like? That led me to think about what does that story look like if it is legitimately made for someone whose body and lived experiences looked like mine. What if that happened to me, which is the actor work, right? You know, the what if.

The script is a clear adaptation of Hamlet but it’s also very funny. Tell me more about why you were driven to explore the comedic side of this tragic play.  

I think it has to be funny. I think everything has to have humor in it. I don’t understand things that are purely tragic. I think it can’t be tragic unless there’s the potentiality of something — someone passing gas! Even when you’re going through great pain or tragedy, there’s still this possibility that something utterly hilarious could happen. Also, in many ways, the rhythms of this group of people is like the rhythms of my family. I come from a very funny family. My sister was amazingly funny. She had a comeback for anybody in any situation, that was both biting and hilarious at the same time. I’ve never had that as a person in my everyday life. I’ve only been able to create that on a page. That’s a part of why the things in the play are funny because that’s what you have to do, you know? It’s the thing that you do to heal, the thing you do to release the tension in your body that can kill you.

In your description of the setting for Fat Ham, you say, “The American South, to me, exists in a kind of liminal space between the past and the present with an aspirational relationship to the future that is contingent to your history living in the South.” Say more about that!

It goes back to this nostalgia thing that I was talking about. It’s a place that is really concerned with a history that it inherently knows can’t fully come back to what it was and is hanging onto all of these signifiers of that time. Regardless of your race or your identity, that’s a part of the survival of growing up in the South. You’re carrying around all of this…I don’t even want to call it history because some of it is ahistorical. You’re carrying around all of this inheritance. It’s this thing that you sort of get and you have to figure out what you want to do with it. It’s like an armoire that’s too big for your studio apartment. “How do I even get it up the stairs?” It feels a little like that.

In terms of how time works in the South, people move slower. I think there’s a lot of advantages to that. I also think that that is a thing that prevents people from actually shaking up what is there to see if there’s something else available. It’s that necessity for ease, that necessity for lack of conflict. I was trying to capture this idea that everyone’s walking around with trauma and pain and this inheritance of a history that’s not really historical and just trying to pick a hairdo. (laughs) “How do I style my hair?”

You can walk into any small town in the South. You walk down the main street of that town and it could be 1975 or it could be 2028. When I was home back in March, I was driving down main street Bessemer City, and I was like, “My god, this place. They painted that sign, that’s new.” It just was as if it were 1999 and I was finishing high school. Maybe different businesses in the buildings but the system that is that city structurally is still there. And that means all of the nonsense that I had to see and deal with, even when I was young, is still there. I can’t imagine what my grandmother thinks about when she drives down that very same main street. My grandmother was the first Black person to integrate City Hall in Bessemer City. She was the first Black person to work there and they were awful to her, as is true of the first in many cases. So when she goes by that building, that’s the same building that she worked in when she was 20-something years old. She’s 80-something now. It’s still the same for her, it hasn’t changed. There’s a freezing of things in time and space that is important in the South that’s different from a play that’s set in New York, which is interested in history but is very interested in modernity.

It’s been difficult to make theatre happen during Covid-19, yet here you are. How did you pull it off?

We did a lot of research. We did a lot of failing, to be honest. We did a lot of, “Oh, we didn’t know we needed to — okay.” We have never filmed any staged productions on location before.

Fat Ham was filmed on location in Virginia. Did being on location allow you to inform or enrich the experience at all?

I think it made a big difference. [On] location, the air smells different. The ground feels different. There’s different molecules to deal with and contend with. It had great meaning to shoot it there because the play is set there. We just learned a ton about what a theatre can do and really isn’t built to do. Luckily we’re sort of coming to the end of that necessity. Fat Ham has benefitted from all of the trial and error that we’ve done up to this point. We still didn’t get everything right but we were continually growing, trying to figure out how to do these things. It was a wild, cool ride of figuring out how do we still make a play and have it meet audiences when we can’t be together.

Fat Ham streams until May 23 and was recently named a New York Times Critics’ Pick. For tickets and information, visit wilmatheater.org.