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NC native James Ijames won a Pulitzer Prize for 'Fat Ham,' a play set at a barbecue

A screenshot from the trailer for "Fat Ham" shows people celebrating at a barbecue.
Wilma Theater
A screenshot from the trailer for "Fat Ham" shows people celebrating at a barbecue.

James Ijames knew that the Pulitzer Prizes would be announced on May 9, but he didn’t check to see if he won. Instead, he busied himself in his office at Villanova University, catching up on work that he hadn’t yet completed for the semester.

Then his phone started buzzing.

“And it was a co-worker of mine calling to say, ‘Hey, you won this really big prize,’” he said. “And I called my mom and my aunt and my uncles and my grandmother. And then it was just like everywhere. It was so fast.”

Ijames, 41, a native of Bessemer City, won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play "Fat Ham," an interpretation of "Hamlet" that is set at a North Carolina barbecue.

“So, in the original play, in Shakespeare’s 'Hamlet,' the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes in and says, your uncle killed me. So, I want you to seek revenge for me,” he said.

"Fat Ham" presents the same sort of scenario: “The father has passed recently, and the uncle is now sort of like in the house. My Hamlet, his name is Juicy, is trying to get to the bottom of it and decide whether or not he wants to go through it or not.”

Ijames graduated from Hunter Huss High School in 1999. He went on to receive a bachelor of arts in drama from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then a master of fine arts in acting from Temple University in Philadelphia.

He said that his time growing up in Bessemer City has had a significant influence on his work as a playwright.

“It had a big influence, and I come from a really big family, you know, everyone talking at the same time, so I was sort of always surrounded by a lot of exciting stories,” he said. “In the South, when we talk to each other, there’s just like a music in the way that we speak. So that’s always in everything that I write. Even when I’m not writing about the South, I can’t really get away from it.”

However, "Fat Ham" is the first play Ijames has written that is set in the South.

He said that while the play is comedic, he wanted to make sure he represented where he comes from “with love and appreciation, because sometimes, we get to be the butt of jokes. … It’s a funny play, but it’s not making fun of the people.”

As far what he’s working on now, Ijames just finished a commission for the Manhattan Theater Club, and he’s also working as a writer for a musical.

Going forward, he said he wants to continue writing and teaching. During the pandemic, he started to do a bit of TV writing, and he hopes to do more of that in the future.

He also would like to at some point take a break. He says he went right back to work after learning he had won the Pulitzer Prize, something that is typical for him.

“I’ve been like going, going going since college, so I’m also looking forward to maybe like resting a little bit, not feeling like I have to fill every corner of my year with work,” he said. “I haven’t really had a chance to celebrate it. And I should celebrate it.”

He said that he feels the win is a chance for him to make the people who helped raise him proud.

“I think for me, it’s you know, it’s a prize that is given from writers to writers. The people who were picking that prize were not all people who wrote plays. There were people who made news journalism and people who write novels and poetry,” he said. “There is something about being honored by the whole writing community that feels really special. Like talking to (The Gazette) and knowing that this will in the newspaper of my home, I was really touched by that, because I love where I come from, and I get to come home a good bit, but I miss it.”

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