James Ijames (pronounced like times without the letter T) grew up in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. He’s a native of Bessemer City, a tiny little town in Gaston County, current population just over 5,000.
These days, Ijames makes his home in Philadelphia, though places like his native Bessemer City, Gastonia, Belmont and Charlotte were all familiar stomping grounds in his earlier years.
Ijames’s resume reads like the driven man he is. During his career he has worked as an actor, writer and director. Currently he is a professor of theater at Villanova University just outside of Philadelphia.
Like so many individuals who leave the Charlotte Metro area, Ijames headed for Atlanta. He attended Morehouse College there for 4 years, receiving a BA in Drama. He later moved to Temple University in Philadelphia, where he received a Masters of Fine Art in acting.
Ijames has received a bevy of awards during his multifaceted career, among them, the 2011 F. Otto Haas award for an Emerging Artist, two Barrymore awards for supporting actor – one for his role in “Superior Donuts” and another for his part in the infamous “Angels in America,” as well as two Barrymore awards for Oututstanding Direction of a Play for “The Brothers Size” and “Gem of the Ocean.”
There’s more – but we’ll cut straight to the reason Ijames is the focus of so much attention these days: on May 10, North Carolina’s native son was the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in the category of Books, Drama and Music for his play “Fat Ham.”
Remember William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet?” That’s the bones of “Fat Ham.”
Ijames has reimagined the historic play, set the storyline in the modern day south at a backyard barbecue. He’s filled it with queer characters and people of color embroiled in often comedic controversy, but held true to much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue. Unlike Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Ijames’s “Fat Ham” doesn’t end with the cast of characters dead at final curtain. Instead, there’s a dance party.
That’s the kind of imagination and creativity that captured a Pulitzer for Ijames.
At the time of our conversation, he’s actually sitting in a closet in his Philadelphia row house.
“I am,” he chuckles. “But it’s an abnormally large closet with a window and my desk. Great in the winter because it’s nice and cozy but terrible in the summer because it gets hot. I use it as my office.”
David Aaron Moore: What was growing up in Bessemer City like?
James Ijames: it was wonderful. I had a big family and I was always bouncing between parents, grandparents, great grandparents, cousins, and aunts and uncles. My mother worked for the Gaston County school system, so I attended Chapel Grove. I also had a beautiful church family. I was surrounded by just a big huge loving family.
DAM: Tell me about your time at Morehouse. Going from Bessemer City to Atlanta must have been a dramatic change for you.
JIJ: Not really. I have an aunt who lived in Atlanta so I used to go there and visit a lot growing up. But Morehouse was a special place. It was an all-male school and I was a Music Major. I did keep hitting a lot of bumps, though. I acted a lot, so I changed my major to Drama. Morehouse has a degree in theater program. But I was all over the place, doing stuff at Clark and Spellman, too. It was a real special four years. And it taught me a lot. I’ve always been a very ambitious person. Not ruthless, just ambitious. One of the things I learned there was to be your full self at all times. Don’t shrink back on who you are for anybody else.
DAM: What was the coming out experience with your family like?
JIJ: Even before I realized the fullness of who I am, they loved me. Between my sexuality and ambition they could tell I was hungry for something, although they didn’t know what it was. But it wasn’t some big issue. When I told them, they were like, “we’re glad you figured it out, it doesn’t matter.” Later when I met someone and fell in love, they welcomed him with open arms. There was always a lot of love in my family. They were always very accepting. When I was younger I went through this angry spell as a teenager (laughs). They were like, “Awh, come here. We know you’re having an angry spell, but it’s okay, we still love you anyway.”
DAM: Let’s talk about your family a little bit. They sound like a fascinating cast of characters.
JIJ: I realize how lucky I am because I grew up with such a huge family. My great grandmother was Georgia Carter. She was such an incredibly loving individual. Always very kind and empathetic, never had a bad word to say about anyone and was never judgmental. When she would hear others sitting around gossiping about someone, she would always say, “you’ve got to meet people where they are, you can’t be judgmental.”
My grandparents were military, so they moved around a lot. As for my parents, my dad worked a lot. He was always working. For a while he was in the military, then he worked at a shoe store and he worked in shipping with a freightliner.
I have two sisters, who are just as ambitious as I am, and then there’s my mom. She always recognized the importance of creative arts and there were always books around the house and she instilled a real love for reading and learning in me. I remember these books my mom had. She ordered them from Ebony magazine. They were about the history of Black people. I remember pouring over them and reading them cover to cover and learning so much. So my mom and my aunt were very diligent about expanding our worldview. They would send us to museums around town in Charlotte and Discovery Place, so there was always a lot going on, always something for us to do.
DAM: I know you’re lucky enough to still have both of your parents. How would you describe them today?
JIJ: (Laughs) They are very funny people. We laugh a lot together. When I was a child they always seemed so serious. Not that we didn’t have a good time but now I see the playfulness. Now that the children are all grown and out of the house and it’s just the two of them they have a different kind of relationship. There’s an undertone going on back and forth between them. You can tell they love each other but they’re also good friends. When I was looking for a partner myself, I realized how important that was. You needed to be with someone who could make you laugh. I mean you’re going to spend the rest of your life with this person. Getting up in the morning and having breakfast across from them. It’s important that person can make you laugh and be your friend.
DAM: What do you miss most about home?
JIJ: (Long sigh). My family. The food. Going to someone’s house for dinner and eating until you’re about to pop. There is this restaurant in Gaston County called McDonald’s Cafeteria – not like the fast food chain, but owned by a family with that last name. Great food! I miss that a lot, too. Every time I get back there I always try to make sure I go.
DAM: How has your life changed since you won the Pulitzer?
JIJ: I’m a lot busier. From that day until just last week there were lots of invitations to make appearances in person and with zoom conferences. People have become more acquainted with me as a writer. “Fat Ham” is sold out at The Public in New York City. But I’m trying to remain grounded. I don’t want to lose sight of who I am and my values and what’s important to me. I don’t want to get lost in that fantasy world of “I won a Pulitzer.” I want to be who I am. I want to stay my true self.
DAM: Why did you wait until the “Fat Ham” to write about the south?
JIJ: I guess I was afraid to. The South has a lot of assumptions that are made about it, and some of them are true. But I didn’t want to make fun of it. I wanted the audience to meet people where they are and accept them for who they are and hear the story they have to tell without judgment. “Fat Ham” gave me a way to be able to do that.
DAM: What are your plans for the future?
JIJ: I’m enjoying what I’m doing now a lot. I think I would consider going back to acting for the right part. But I’m also enjoying writing and I enjoy teaching. I hope to do some more writing for television in the future, as well. But, you know sometimes it feels like I’ve just been going non-stop since college. So I’m also looking forward to resting a little bit. And not feeling like I have to fill all of my life with work.
DAM: If you’re resting, what is your guilty pleasure on television?
JIJ: (blurts out abruptly) “Housewives.” Any of them. I love them all. They’re so funny. I can work with them on in the background.
For more information on James Ijames, his works and career, visit his website here: https://www.jamesijames.com