Interview with James Ijames

Studio Theatre Literary Director Adrien-Alice Hansel sat down with playwright James Ijames ahead of the rehearsals for the world premiere of Good Bones, which Studio Theatre commissioned. This is the edited and condensed version of their conversation. 

Adrien-Alice: Studio commissioned this play—we thought you are a great writer and we gave you some money to write something for our spaces. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to write Good Bones? At one point we were all excited about your adaptation of Creditors, and you’re a ways away from there now! 

James: Yeah, sure. When I was down in DC for my residency, to see the spaces and a show here, I went on a walking tour—which was actually partly walking and partly driving because it was raining. And you set me up with Shellee [Haynesworth of Black Broadway on U]. I remember we were driving around and she kept pointing out places that used to be different things: “This used to be this. This used to be that.”  

I live in Philly, which is going through its own sort of gentrification. I see it in the neighborhood I live in. I bought my house in 2012, and I see how it’s been changing for about a decade there. But I didn’t want to write a story that was like, “White people are bad, moving into a Black neighborhood making the place terrible.” That’s been done.  

But as a Black person moving into a neighborhood, that is gentrifying, I am also changing the landscape of that place, and so what does that mean for me? As a person who has some means and am moving to a place where people have less than I do—what is my responsibility to that community? How do I find myself in community with the people I’ve moved in with? So when I first moved in, there was a family that lived down the street who would set out a barbecue in front of the house with like loud music. And I was like, “It's Wednesday. I want to just go to sleep. Like the scene with Travis in the play.” 

And then I realized that all I had to do was be in community with those people. Just go over and say, “Hi my name is James, I live here. I don't want to crush your groove, but is there a balance we can find? You’re adjacent to my house. I can see your bedroom from my bedroom.” And they were like, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. Yeah, we can make a shift.” 

And they did it. I’m actually quite close to that family now, but it took me going out as the new person coming into a community that existed before I showed up, and trying to be in community with the people in the community I was moving into.  

This is also the only realistic play I’ve ever written. I was thinking, “I’ll try something else for Studio Theatre.” I was a little afraid to write something that was just in a kitchen, but I think being afraid is why I wanted to do it: Can I aspire to Lorraine Hansberry? Can I aspire to August Wilson? I mean, they write these explosive lasers—they’re always performed as realism and they’re not, they’re something else. But really the challenge was: Can I have a real conversation about a big idea with just people in a room talking? 

Adrien-Alice: Where did you get the name for the play? 

James: I called the play Good Bones in order to evoke the people who live there, the bones of the people who lived there before—and then before that, and then before that, back to the first people who set foot on this land. Whenever you enter a place—if it’s a city or a neighborhood or a house, there’s an energy you are entering into.  

That’s how history works to me, and I’m trying to talk about history in a place. 

Adrien-Alice: Can you talk a little about the ghosts of the play? 

James: This really is a play about haunting. You displace people. That history is still there, the energy of that community that used to be here is still there. Something is actually lost if you remove everyone that lived in a community. 

At Morehouse there was a housing project that was sort of between Morehouse College and the train. And my freshman year, the thing they told us was that you shouldn’t walk to the train alone because it’s a little dangerous. And me, from Bessemer City NC, I was terrified of everything, and took that very seriously. But then I started to get to know the people who lived there—I got to know them a little bit just from walking back and forth from the train to campus. And when I came back to school the summer between my sophomore and junior year and they’d razed all of these buildings. And I was just like, “Where did they go? Where did these people go?” Now there’s this beautiful Ray Charles Performing Arts Building there.  Morehouse bought all that land, and it's great. I'm glad that those students have access to these very nice facilities. But I think about those people. And that’s part of the story.  

It’s part of the human story that we want to tell. Not whether or not it’s ok. What does it mean when you just remove people? That’s how we answer problems in this country, historically. We remove people we don’t want to look at. We remove things that we don’t want to look at or think about or we set up conditions in which we don’t have to think about the things we do.  

And so I put these people in a kitchen and make them feel and think about those things. 

Adrien-Alice: So if you’re not just going to remove people, or figure out how to not think about what used to be in a space, do you have thoughts about what new-to-the-neighborhood folks can do? 

James: I think we have to rethink safety, and I think we have to rethink community. The play seems like it’s about gentrification, but I hope it’s actually talking about how a person or people enter into a community and become a part of that community.  

In the play, Aisha comes into the community and decides it should be different. She’s not asking “Where do I fit into the community? What do I bring into the community beyond your money?” 

It’s also a play about people who work in a trade, with their hands, with their skills. It’s perceived to be a lower-brow approach to the world, but really you need both! A community needs engineers / architects and craftspeople.  

I’ve written a new ending for this play—now we get to see the couple try to get to a place where they see how they could be contributors to a neighborhood instead of trying to transform it and displace the people who live there. And of course we want positive change! But when you’re looking at contributing instead of displacing it’s kind of the difference between “I want a community with fancy coffee shops because if I see them, they’ll make me feel safe” and thinking, “coffee is a collective value; we all benefit from good coffee.”  

It’s about shifting how we think about neighborhoods and belonging, it’s an invitation to begin to imagine what it looks like if people who enter a community decide to find themselves enmeshed in a community instead of trying to fix the community to meet their own needs.