NEW YORK CITY: Today the Pulitzer committee announced that James Ijames has won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Fat Ham, an irreverent riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet that had its premiere in the spring of 2021 as a filmed play by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, where Ijames is a co-artistic director. (The play begins previews on Thursday at New York City’s Public Theater.) The two finalists were Sylvia Khoury for her dramatic thriller, Selling Kabul, about an Afghan translator abandoned by the Americans he helped and his sister’s efforts to save him, which had its premiere last year at NYC’s Playwrights Horizons (and is currently running at Seattle Rep), and Kristina Wong for Kristina Wong, Sweat Shop Overlord, the playwright’s solo work documenting her efforts to make homemade masks through the early days of the COVID pandemic, which premiered last fall at New York Theatre Workshop and has just been announced for a run at California’s La Jolla Playhouse next fall.
Fat Ham was described by the Pulitzer jury as “a funny, poignant play that deftly transposes Hamlet to a family barbecue in the American South to grapple with questions of identity, kinship, responsibility, and honesty.”
“I really, truly thought it was a bit of a long shot, but I’m just over the moon,” said Ijames in a brief phone interview today from the campus of Pennsylvania’s Villanova University, where he serves as an associate professor in the theatre department, a resident director for the mainstage production season, and an affiliated faculty in the department of Africana Studies. Asked about his inspiration for the play, he said, “I have always loved Hamlet, and I wanted to bring it a little closer to my experience, and to write it in the voice and spirit of my family, who are from the South.” (The play’s stage directions say it’s set in “a house in North Carolina. Could also be Virginia, or Maryland or Tennessee. It is not Mississippi, or Alabama or Florida. That’s a different thing all together.”) Though the play deals head-on with “exploring cycles of violence and inherited trauma, and how you can overcome those,” Ijames called the play “a love letter” to his family.
As it did last year, this year’s drama jury considered works that had been produced virtually due to COVID restrictions on gathering, as Fat Ham was. This year’s jury was chaired by Misha Berson, freelance arts writer and former drama critic of The Seattle Times, and included David John Chávez, chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and a correspondent for San Jose Mercury News; Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, playwright and associate professor of practice in playwriting, University of Texas at Austin; Alisa Solomon, professor of journalism and director in arts concentration, M.A. program in journalism, Columbia University; and Rob Weinert-Kendt, editor-in-chief of American Theatre magazine.
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