Philly playwright James Ijames wins national recognition, wider audience

 Playwright James Ijames has won the Whiting Award, a national prize for emerging writers. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Playwright James Ijames has won the Whiting Award, a national prize for emerging writers. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

A Philadelphia playwright has won a national award for emerging writers.

James Ijames, known as an actor, director, and writer in local theater, has won the Whiting Award and its $50,000 prize. The award is given annual to 10 emerging American writers by the Whiting Foundation.

James Ijames is no stranger to awards; he’s received a Pew Fellowship, a Barrymore Award, the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s new play award, and others — some of them with generous cash prizes.

But the Whiting Award is a national prize.

“The major thing is seeing my work as a playwright extend beyond Philadelphia,” said Ijames. “Philly has been such a nurturing place for me as an artist — as an actor, director, and playwright. I think this is an exciting moment where a lot of people who were not familiar with my work will get a sense of what I’m like as a writer.”

In May, Ijames play “WHITE” will premiere at Theater Horizon in Norristown. And, for the first time, his work will be seen outside the region — theaters in Washington, D.C., and New York will be producing his scripts this year.

“WHITE”  is a comedy about a white, male artist who, desperate to get some attention for his paintings, hires a black, female actress to present his work as her own. It gets out of hand.

“WHITE” and Ijames’ “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” were developed at PlayPenn, an annual conference of new theater work where evolving scripts get public readings.

“…Miz Martha” will open next month at the Ally Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. — the first production of iJames’ work outside the Philadelphia region. Later this year, another work by Ijames will open in New York.

Ijames said prizes such as the Whiting Award give him confidence in the value of his work, which he admits can be “weird.”

“Some people have called it absurdist, some have called it dark comedy,” he said. “It’s always done with humor — balancing humor with the horrific or the unspeakable. Sometimes that’s a little odd for some people.”

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