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Bessemer City native James Ijames discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Fat Ham."

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Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer
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Playwright James Ijames in Mifflin Square Park in Philadelphia on April 13, 2021. Courtesy of Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In May, the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to Bessemer City, North Carolina native James Ijames, for his play, Fat Ham. It's about a young man struggling with his sexuality and dealing with the marriage between his mother and his uncle that happened days after his father was murdered. If that last part sounds familiar, it's because the play is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Fat Ham is set in a rural town in North Carolina during a barbecue to celebrate the scandalous marriage. With themes of black masculinity and homophobia weaved into a dark comedy that takes Shakespeare's Hamlet into the Black South. The 41-year-old Ijames says his fascination with Hamlet goes back to his days at Morehouse College in Atlanta when he first read the play and landed a role in a local production.

James Ijames: I played Hamlet and I was like, "What a great character." And like, the language was so lush. And I think what it was about Hamlet is that I identified with his outsider, loner, conflicted, ambivalent self. Like there was something about that person that I identified with and that I understood. So it's just always been a play that I return to. And so I wanted to take a facet of the story of Hamlet, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and sort of use that as the jumping-off point for a play of my own. And so I decided I wanted to set it essentially in that second scene of Hamlet, when we meet all of the players and Claudius is like, you know, "the king is gone. I'm here now. This is my wife. Cheer up, son." And so that's kind of how my play starts.

Listen, I know you having a hard time with this. Me and your mama and all that. Anyway, you've got a new daddy, and you don't even have to get to know me. You've been knowing me your whole life, right?
— Uncle Rev, Fat Ham

Ijames: Then from there, I hold on to some of Hamlet. I throw away some of Hamlet. And it really becomes an exploration of how families get stuck in cycles of trauma, of violence, of abuse, even, and how younger generations, particularly my generation and the generation after me, we have begun to find ways to decide that we want to do things differently or ask for things differently and ask for things to function differently.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Well, tell us about the main character, Juicy.

Ijames: Juicy is a young man — young, queer black man living in the South. Was living with his parents and now is living with his mother and his uncle who have now married. And he just wants to go to school, much like Hamlet and wants to just go back to Wittenberg and forget everything that's happened. And he's going to school online to be a person who works in human resources. So it's not someone who, like at his core, wants to make sure that people are okay, wants people to be taken care of, who also wants people to follow the rules, who wants people to get the benefits that they deserve. In the beginning of the play, he's sort of dejected by what's happening, and then the ghost of his father shows up.

Ghosts don't get paranoid. Ghosts been knowing things that the living people don't know.
— Pap, Fat Ham

Ijames: And then he has to make a decision about what kind of life he wants to live, what kind of relationship he wants to have to violence, and does he want to continue this cycle? You know what his father started, what his uncle continued. Does he want to continue that?

Glenn: And that's from Hamlet, too, with the ghost appearing

Ijames: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I have a real affinity for ghosts. You know, ghosts appear in my plays a good bit just because I think that they force the living to confront what they're living through and how they're living. They convict the living in a way.

Glenn: And how did you come up with the title, though? Fat Ham.

Ijames: They work in, you know, barbecue and pork? And I didn't want to call it like "New Hamlet" or — so I was trying to find a way to think about the title "Hamlet" and sort of keeping a gesture of that. And then also thinking about like, you know, what's the good part of the pork? It's the fat part of the pork. And it really does encapsulate, you know, this — Juicy being, this sort of, you know, people would say "big-boned" in the South. I wanted to put in the title that truth about that character. So that someone couldn't come along later on and cast some thin, waifish-looking actor in that role. That this character needs to be played by someone heavy.

Glenn: And he quotes Shakespeare.

The spirit that I have seen may be the devil: and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds more relative than this: the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king — cook.
— Juicy, Fat Ham

Ijames: I think in any context, randomly quoting Shakespeare would be read as weird. Like, you're not in a theater class, you're not in a play, you know, just on the bus and someone says, "Hi, how are you?" And you say, you know, "but soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" Like that's weird! But I guess I'm also saying that like — that that weird part of him is okay and like, I find sometimes that, you know, I don't have the language to describe how I'm feeling in a moment, but I could like look to Shakespeare or Lucille Clifton or James Baldwin or Lorraine Hansberry. And they have said the thing that I feel so beautifully, so concretely.

Glenn: Now, as you said, it's set in the South. It's set in North Carolina. He's a gay man. Some of these things parallel your life.

Ijames: You know, my family is nothing like how they treat Juicy. You know, we had, you know, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who were like, "just put your heart on it and it'll come true." I did see people who had to struggle and scrape and fight to be who they were. I have also had to, like, find ways to make my presence known and to be my true and fullest self. And in college, it was a real struggle to sort of just be myself.

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The Wilma Theater
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A still from the streamed film production of "Fat Ham," from the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Directed by Morgan Green, Brennen S. Malone plays the recently bereaved Juicy, who just wants to go back to college to study human resources. Brandon J. Pierce plays Larry, a young Marine and family friend.

Glenn: Now you have a background and training in music. Is music always a big part of your plays? And tell us a little about your background in music.

Ijames: I was very into choral music and in high school — middle school and high school, really, and even into college. And I come from a family that's musical. My uncle Henry is a musician and a singer. I have an uncle Kevin who plays bass. Like, there's a lot of music in my family. I started college as a vocal performance major and ultimately changed my major to theater. Music is always in my plays because I think it communicates something that a spoken word can't always get at.

Glenn: The journey from your writing early days to winning a Pulitzer — and you're very young. How would you describe the journey?

Ijames: I think my journey as a writer has felt like a very slow but, like, deliberate incline. My focus, my seriousness, my joy with writing has just only increased over the years. And so every time I sit down to write dialogue between people, I feel certain, clear, excited, energized by it. So it's always felt right. And so now I think the next phase of my journey is "how do I continue to deepen the work, to challenge myself, to push myself?" So I'm excited about what's next. I think when you're a little older and you know a little bit more, you've seen a lot more and you've experienced a lot more, what you write changes. So I'm hoping that it just gets better.

Glenn: The journey continues.

Ijames: Yeah.

James Ijames won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Fat Ham," which just ended off-Broadway. Ijames oversaw the streamed film adaptation whose excerpts were heard in this interview. His play, "Good Bones," will be on stage next year at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C. and he's working on several plays, a novel and a book for a Broadway musical. Ijames lives in Philadelphia and says he hopes to bring "Fat Ham" to North Carolina.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.