James Ijames Bio

From DC, drive 446 miles for six hours and forty-four minutes via I-81S (or 424 miles for six hours and fifty-one minutes via I-95S and I-85S if you want to avoid the toll road or what my family likes to call “the scenic route”) and you’ll head into Bessemer City, North Carolina. Roundabout 5,000 people reside in the 5.26 square miles of this small suburban city in Gaston County. Travel downtown and see the First Baptist Church, City Park, post office, Grace Lutheran Church, Bennett’s Handyman Services, Harvest Baptist Church, The Woman’s Club, Crisis Center, Community Garden, and Boys and Girls Club. Lots of little shops dotting the street. Some familiar. Some abandoned. Some new. 

This is where James Ijames began his life, and where his grandmother taught him how to write a play at age 13. “I wrote a play for the first time when I was thirteen because my grandmother made me. She said, this is how they work, the name goes here, then what they say goes next, and if they do something, you write that in between,” he told the Southern Review of Books. His Grandmother later “took it and they did it at church.” Theater didn’t stick right away; he leaned more into his interests in band and choir, later attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia where he pursued a degree in music with a concentration in choral music conducting. However, he found himself less than amused. Speaking of the experience, Ijames said, “I went to college in Georgia at Morehouse College to get a degree in music with a concentration in Choral Music Conducting, ’cause that’s what I thought I wanted to do. I got [to Morehouse] and really quickly discovered that [I] didn’t want to [do that]—it was awful, I hated it.” His vocal teacher suggested he audition for Once on This Island; he was cast and redirected his career towards theater. At Moorehouse, he was also exposed to Suzan–Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World  and  Mac Wellman’s Description Beggared; or the Allegory of Whiteness, plays he credits with exciting him about theatre.  

On the advice of his acting teacher, ventured into acting first, studying the discipline at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was here that he honed his talents as a performer, began working with professional playwrights, and solidified his actor-based approach to writing. In 2011 and 2012, Ijames performed in both Superior Donuts and Angels in America respectively, taking home Philadelphia theater’s Barrymore Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play for each. In October of 2014, having made Philly a new home, he founded Orbiter 3 along with four other playwrights, and Artistic Director Maura Krause. Orbiter 3 was a critically acclaimed producing playwrights collective that later premiered Ijames’s Moon Man Walk in 2015. 

Ijames writes plays with the kind of endless curiosity that actors want to have when performing. His work examines real world issues of identity, race, and society in familiar backdrops with surreal twists and sharp humor. Developed at the PlayPenn New Play Conference, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington follows an ill Martha Washington who is being tended to by the enslaved people who will gain their freedom upon her death. Set in the midst of a fever-dream of sorts, we watch as Miz Martha, the audience, and America reckon with the enduring fallout of the slavery that built the country. Similarly, Ijames’s more recent work, Good Bones, commissioned by and premiered at Studio Theatre is set in an unnamed East Coast city, follows a civil engineer who grew up in “the Projects” and has returned to redevelop her old neighborhood, fixing up a house that her family never would have been able to afford. In this play, Ijames examines the complex nature of gentrification, particularly at the hands of people who came from that area. Given the rise of this specific form of “home-grown gentrification” as personal mobility clashes with communal responsibility, Good Bones sets the stage for an uncomfortable, but important conversation. 

Ijames deliberately sets his work in locations that fuel the narrative rather than merely serve as setting. Pulitzer-Prize-winning Fat Ham occurs in a backyard cookout, a cornerstone of Black American life and a site of transformation, community, grief, and jubilee—all themes very present in the story. White, a play developed at the 2015 PlayPenn New Play Conference and part of the 2015 Gulfshore Playhouse New Works Festival, tackles the issues of artistic ownership, White privilege, the appropriation of Black womanhood, and exploitation. All of this is smartly explored in an art gallery, providing a much-needed spotlight into the ways in which art—a format heralded as the epitome of mental freedom and self-expression—is one of the biggest offenders of racism and continual perpetrator of Black exploitation.  

The career of Ijames is one that is marked with success and no sign of stopping. Along with being an Associate Professor of Theatre at Villanova University and co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater, his work has appeared at The Arden Theatre Company, The National Black Theater, Baltimore Center Stage and Interact Theatre Company, The Philadelphia Theatre Company, Orbiter 3, Ally Theatre Company, Flashpoint Theater Company, and Theatre Horizon...to name a few. His work has also been commissioned by Studio Theatre, Bryn Mawr College, and Manhattan Theatre Club. On the awards front, Ijames has taken home the 2014 Barrymore Award for Outstanding Direction of the play The Brothers Size. His play White was awarded the 2015 Terrence McNally New Play Award for New Play, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington received an honorable mention for the 2018 Kesselring Prize for playwriting, and Fat Ham—his take on Hamlet that is one of the most-produced plays in the United States this season—took home the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and received a 2023 Tony Award nomination for Best Play. 

Given the accolades awarded to Ijames, it should be on no surprise that critics have also expressed their admiration for his work. Nathan Pugh writes in a review of Good Bones, “Ijames is incredibly skilled at writing humorous, lively dialogue. Although Good Bones deals with serious subject matter, the jokes flow quickly and easily, and the language occasionally wanders into metaphor in profound ways.” Writing about Fat Ham, Variety makes the note that "[t]he brilliance of Ijames’ play lies in its manipulation of a canonical text in service of imagining Black futures and positing radical possibility where others see only foreclosure”. Meanwhile, The New York Times glowingly writes of Fat Ham that “[s]o many playwrights and directors try to find the spaces in Shakespeare’s texts that they can squeeze into, strong-arming their personal sensibilities and contemporary politics into some of Shakespeare’s best-known speeches and scenes. Ijames does the opposite in ‘Fat Ham’; he steals the bones of the original and sloughs off the excess like the fatty bits on a slab of meat. He crafts his own story and then within it makes space for Shakespeare again.” 

Cleopatra Mavhunga