Philly playwright James Ijames wins the Pulitzer Prize

Portrait of James Ijames

File photo: James Ijames is an actor, writer, director and professor of theater at Villanova University. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This year’s Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday, and Philadelphia playwright James Ijames brought home the prestigious award.

Ijames, an associate professor at Villanova University and a co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Center City Philadelphia, won for his play “Fat Ham,” which reimagines Shakespeare’s classic “Hamlet” as a queer, Black story set in a barbecue restaurant in the American south.

Fat Ham was given its premiere last year by the Wilma. Because it was during the pandemic shutdown, the play was presented online as a digital film shot in rural Virginia, which the New York Times called “hilarious yet profound.”

The play opens this weekend for an in-person production at the Public Theater in New York.

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“Once I got the feeling back in my fingers, I felt really full,” said Ijames of winning the prize. “I have a lot of gratitude. I’m really honored and happy that this play that I really love connected with people. It’s going to get to connect with more people.”

Ijames has had little time to process the landmark win. He received news of the prize on Monday afternoon while at a showcase of work by his graduating students at Villanova.

The next morning, he hustled to the Wilma Theater where he is directing rehearsals of the forthcoming play “Fairview,” which, coincidentally, won author Jackie Sibblies Drury the Pulitzer Prize in 2019.

“I’m actually glad that I have work, because otherwise I’d be sitting somewhere, you know, obsessing about this,” Ijames said. “I’m hoping that I get to the point where I’m not working quite as much, but I love it.”

Ijames’ idea for reimagining “Hamlet” grew out of a college theater assignment he was given years ago to workshop a single scene from “Hamlet”. He chose the second scene from Act 1, a court scene wherein almost all the main characters are present.

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“The whole play could take place at that moment,” he said. “My play is essentially that court scene, and then I just smash every other part of Hamlet into that moment.”

After an early version of the play was given its first staged reading by Philadelphia’s Azuka Theatre through its New Pages writers workshop, Ijames saw that his idea might have legs. He turned the famous Shakespeare tragedy into a comedy about how trauma is inherited down through familial generations.

“I think Hamlet is hilarious,” he said. “I think all of those plays have humor in them. That’s why Shakespeare continues to captivate us, because he’s able to put pathos and humor right beside each other, on each other’s heels all the time.”

“Fat Ham” begins previews this week at the Public Theater in New York. Ijames’ direction of Drury’s “Fairview” begins previews at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia in three weeks, on May 31.

Ijames new script, Reverie, is being given its premiere right now at Azuka Theatre.

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