James Ijames, MFA
Associate Professor of Theatre
Earlier this year, James Ijames (pronounced Imes) cemented his status as a defining playwright in American theater when he received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his most recent play Fat Ham—a modern take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He joins the ranks of legends like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Wendy Wasserstein and Lin-Manuel Miranda in attaining this coveted distinction, the highest national honor in literary achievement.
It was a watershed moment for the prolific playwright, director and educator, whose works have been produced nationally to critical acclaim. Writing plays since age 14, Professor Ijames first rose to prominence in the Philadelphia performing arts scene in 2011 when he was named the recipient of the F. Otto Haas Award, given to an emerging theater artist. Since that time, the list of distinctions and prizes has been long and extensive, including four Barrymore Awards, two each for acting and directing; a 2019 Kesselring Prize for his play Kill Move Paradise the 2015 Pew Fellowship for Playwriting; and the 2015 Terrence McNally New Play Award for his witty and provocative White.
Professor Ijames’ plays take on big, complicated issues dissecting race, gender and class differences in American society with humor that keeps audiences engaged. “I’m interested in disturbing the canon,” explains Professor Ijames. “I’m often looking at things from the past, whether it’s a play like Hamlet or an event from history, and saying ‘What about this is useful now?’”
With the Pulitzer Prize comes an even wider interest in Professor Ijames’ past plays, several of which are being staged in major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. He has also had a number of new works commissioned and is excited to bring those to audiences, along with continuing to teach the next generation of theatre professionals at Villanova. “It’s just in my DNA to want to educate people and try to pull out their untapped potential,” says Professor Ijames. “I come from a family of educators and teaching will always be a major part of my life.”
Playwriting With Purpose
Universally lauded by critics for taking Shakespeare’s most famous and beloved tragedy and removing the tragedy, Professor Ijames’ most recent play, Fat Ham, was described by the Pulitzer Committee 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.”
Performed live at New York City’s Public Theater in collaboration with the National Black Theater this past spring, Fat Ham had its world premiere during the COVID-19 pandemic as a digital production in 2021. It was originally mounted by The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where Professor Ijames is a co-artistic director.
In its review, The New York Times praised Fat Ham for refusing “the tropes of Black suffering even as it engages the seriousness of Shakespeare. It is the rare takeoff that actually takes off—and then flies in its own smart direction.”
“I hope when audiences see my work that they are challenged,” Professor Ijames says. “I hope they reconsider—I want people to feel like they need to talk to somebody about what they just watched.”
Read the next story
Christine Speidel, JD
Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Federal Tax Clinic