Each month on The Subtext Brian speaks with a playwright about life, writing, and whatever itches we are scratching.
This month he talks to last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, playwright, director, and educator James Ijames. His plays have been produced by such Philadelphia theatres as Flashpoint Theater Company, Orbiter 3, Theatre Horizon, Wilma Theatre, Theatre Exile, and Azuka Theatre, as well as by the National Black Theatre, JACK, the Public Theater, Hudson Valley Shakespeare Theater, Steppenwolf Theatre, and several others. James is a 2015 Pew Fellow for Playwriting, the 2015 winner of the Terrence McNally New Play Award for White, a 2017 recipient of the Whiting Award, a 2018 Kesselring Prize for Kill Move Paradise, and a 2020 and 2022 Steinberg Prize. In the coming months he’ll be represented both on Broadway, where his Pulitzer-winning Fat Ham starts previews tonight, and in his longtime home base, Philadelphia, with the play Abandon at Theatre Exile in April.
On this episode James talks about growing up with a family that valued art and was always making each other laugh. His grandmother proved to be one of the most important influences on his early life: It was at her home where he and his siblings and cousins would play on the giant backyard rock, which became a central point of imagination.
James studied choral music in high school, which became his first career focus because he loved how it brought people together to make music. But when confronted with music theory and having to learn to play piano, he got knocked off course. When a teacher nudged him to audition for a production of Once on This Island, he saw the way theatre brought people together to create, and he was hooked.
His degree was in performance, and that was his primary focus after grad school. Over time, he started to become disillusioned with acting and the lack of control over what parts are available. He also felt he was aging out of the younger roles he had been playing for so long and felt there wasn’t as much of a space for him as a performer.
His family—and his grandmother in particular—encouraged James to write from a young age, as it was a way for him to channel all his feelings. He wrote his first play at age 15 for his church, and his grandmother directed it. He has been playing with the form ever since.
This episode can also be found here.
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