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Finding & Sharing Inspiration

An Interview with Fat Ham playwright James Ijames

By Amy Levinson, Geffen Playhouse Associate Artistic Director


Amy Levinson: Tell us about your relationship to Hamlet and how it inspired you to write Fat Ham.

James Ijames: I read Hamlet for the first time when I was a freshman in college and I was cast in a student-directed abbreviated production of a couple of scenes from Shakespeare. I was in the scene from Hamlet. It was the big court scene, where everybody (other than Horatio) is there for the first time. I played Hamlet and I loved it. I loved saying those words. You have that really gorgeous speech in there. And I’m just coming to terms with being gay and at an all-male college in Georgia. There was something about that speech. O, that this too too solid flesh would melt thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God! I still remember it because I understood it. I thought, I have felt this way. I felt like no one in my family would ever accept me if I told them this, so I couldn’t. But then in Act III, Hamlet says he can’t not be who he is. I have always attached Hamlet to that notion. The idea that there was something fundamental about him but because of the family and world he was born into, he kept rejecting it.

So, when I started to write, and I wanted to sort of dabble in adaptation, the first play that came to mind was Hamlet. It just made complete sense to make Juicy queer. I would have to make Hamlet queer. And knowing that helped me build the obstacles in the play. Because I was very clear about why he felt shut out of his family. And so, the obstacle is this intense notion of masculinity? And some of the violence and signifiers of that kind of masculinity that show up in men and families that they inflict on the queer members of the family, whether intentional or unintentional. That’s the journey from when I first met the play to how we got here.

AL: How did you decide on the time and setting for your version of this story?

JI: I read this book where a writer was talking about two different kinds of nostalgia. There’s this nostalgia that’s about an imagined or fabricated past sort of like “make America great again.” It is nostalgia based on an idea that isn’t real. And then there’s restorative nostalgia, which looks at the things we have learned in practice, at the ways we learned from failure, and I knew that I wanted to set the play in a contemporary moment, and not in a time that was going to allow the audience to think about these people reflectively, with a kind of fabricated nostalgia. That is very easy to do with Black people in the South. So, it is set in North Carolina, which is, as far as Southern States go, one of the milder ones.

The culture has this very distinct mix of the Tidewater accent with this sort of coastal accent coming from one direction, and an Appalachian thing coming from another. I grew up right smack dab in the middle of North Carolina, as far south as you can go before you get to South Carolina. So, I see the South in a very specific way. People don’t think about the specifics of North Carolina like they do with New Orleans or Savannah, but that part of the country has its own Southernness that I know the best. I wanted to show this version of Black Southern identity that I don’t think we typically see.

It’s funny, because I really have avoided the South in most of my other plays. But here, I wanted to write a love letter to this place that I grew up while also imprinting a different kind of expression of Black Southern identity on stage.


People don’t think about the specifics of North Carolina like they do with New Orleans or Savannah, but that part of the country has its own Southernness that I know the best. I wanted to show this version of Black Southern identity that I don’t think we typically see.


AL: How has the play evolved since its first version, through Broadway, and now the many subsequent regional productions?

JI: That initial production was a movie because it was in 2021. I had written this play that I had thought of as this incredibly bombastic, stylized, hyper-theatrical event. But then we had to shoot the thing, so the world got a little tighter, and I put the theatrical fireworks into what they were saying and what they were doing and how they were reacting to each other.

Moving it into that form forced me to really dig into those characters and their words. So that was the script we were working from when we moved from The Wilma to The Public. And I didn’t really even know if it was funny until we were in rehearsal, and I was like, oh God, it’s a lot funnier than I thought it was. People were laughing at things I hadn’t thought of as jokes. I was just writing a play about this family.

I’m really thankful for that time. It’s shocking that we were able to put that project together during that really difficult time. In terms of the shift from The Public to Broadway, there were minor character changes. For instance, I wanted to give Opal a little bit more language because I wanted her to have access to softness that she didn’t have in the earlier productions. And Adrianna [Mitchell] did such a beautiful job with that language, as your audience will see.

AL: On your website, you have a section of ideas: huge, rich, fleshed-out ideas that you are giving to the world and saying “these are the things I’m not going to write. Here they are, and please go write them.” It’s such an act of artistic generosity, and I just wanted to know where this idea came from.

JI: Well, I write pretty quickly. So, when I have an idea that I know is mine, it’s clear and I can hit the ground running. I get a draft out as fast as I can, so that the shape of the story exists in the world. And then I write the play. And none of those ideas make it to the website. The ideas I’m sharing are things I’d love to see but also things I know I’ll never write myself. They are ideas that inspire me and I’d like to see them realized in some way. I know when I am the wrong writer for an idea, so this is a way to share ideas that I have no business writing about. And my hope is that by putting it on that website, it will come to fruition one day.

You know, I started late in the theater. I was an amateur much longer than any of my peers were before I actually became somebody that I would consider a professional. I was working and doing this because I love it and not actually making enough money. And like everyone, I wasn’t that good at it in the beginning. So much of my practice has been about the generosity of other people. People saying, “that’s interesting, you should run with that.” And this is a big thing in my family. We say all the time that you praise the bridge that brought you safely across. There’s this notion that you don’t get through this life by yourself. You enter it by yourself, you leave it by yourself, but you can’t get through it without other people—or rather, it’s very difficult to get through it without other people.

So that idea page on my website, I hope it gives someone that spark of inspiration that I had when I read Suzan-Lori Parks’ essay “New Black Math.” I remember where I was, what the room smelled like when I read that, because it radically affected who I was as a writer. I’ve never mentioned this to her, but she changed my life, and that is something I want to do for people. I want to be an artist that has that kind of engagement with other artists. So, I hope people are inspired to take the ideas and run with them.


Fat Ham

MAR 27 – MAY 5, 2024
BROADWAY PRODUCTION
WEST COAST PREMIERE
GIL CATES THEATER

Written by James Ijames
Original Direction by Saheem Ali
Directed by Sideeq Heard
Produced in Association with No Guarantees, Public Theater Productions & Rashad V. Chambers
Featuring Nikki Crawford, Chris Herbie Holland, Billy Eugene Jones, Adrianna Mitchell, Marcel Spears, Benja Kay Thomas & Matthew Elijah Webb

Meet Juicy, a young, queer Black man with a Shakespearean-sized dilemma. When the ghost of his dead father shows up at his family’s BBQ wedding reception demanding his murder be avenged, does the poetic and sensitive Juicy have it in him to do the deed, or will he “to thine own self be true?” See what the New York Times calls “a hilarious yet profound tragedy smothered in comedy,” in this Pulitzer Prize–winning take on Hamlet, direct from Broadway to L.A.

Fat Ham first premiered in 2022 at The Public Theater as a co-production between National Black Theatre and The Public Theater. Fat Ham made its Broadway premiere on April 12, 2023.

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