NEW YORK, NY.-
When James Ijames and Saheem Ali, the playwright and director of the Broadway-bound Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fat Ham, talk about their projects, they do so in the kind of shorthand of longtime friends: incomplete sentences, phrases punctuated with laughs and a whole vocabulary of glances.
Its a frigid February day, and they have settled into a booth at the Library restaurant at the Public Theater. Ijames is a bit guarded speaking carefully, his posture showing a certain reserve. Ali radiates energy beaming as he listens to Ijames, occasionally tapping him on the arm in excitement.
Were always, always, always ideating, always brainstorming, Ali said. Its kind of wonderful.
Ijames gently contradicts Ali: Yeah, I am not thinking about anything else.
You just sent me a new draft Ali starts.
That was a while ago! Ijames protests.
It was like two weeks ago! Ali insists. Both of them crack up.
The back-and-forth is a hallmark of the creative partnership that now finds them preparing to make their Broadway debuts with Fat Ham, a co-production of the National Black Theater and the Public Theater. When the show opens at the American Airlines Theater on April 12, it will be the first National Black Theater production to appear on Broadway and the only work by a Black playwright on Broadway this spring.
I remember we announced that were coming and then the climate really kind of shifted after that, said Ali, 44, acutely aware of the commercial pressures that have left new stories by Black playwrights struggling to find staying power on Broadway. What are we walking into?
A riff on Hamlet in the form of a Black family gathering in North Carolina, the story follows a college student named Juicy, who is stuck at a barbecue that doubles as a wedding celebration for his mother, Tedra, and her new husband, Rev, a pit master and the brother of Tedras recently deceased ex-husband. Juicys the sullen outcast; hes gay, emotionally aware, intellectual and not the embodiment of Black manhood that Rev expects him to be. When the ghost of Juicys father appears, demanding Juicy avenge his wrongful killing at his brothers hand, the Hamlet story commences.
The shows world premiere, a filmed production for the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, was streamed digitally in 2021, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The play then had a critically acclaimed off-Broadway run in 2022 at the Public Theater. Just weeks before opening, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Ijames, 42, who grew up in North Carolina and lives in Philadelphia, where he is the co-artistic director of the Wilma, is known for his examinations of Blackness and how it has been shaped by our nations prejudices. He strikes right at the foundations, often drawing on what are now viewed as the hypocrisies of the heroes of U.S. history like Thomas Jefferson (in TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever) and George and Martha Washington (in The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington).
Ijames first play for the National Black Theater, 2017s Kill Move Paradise, imagines a waiting room in the afterlife where four young Black men are trying to understand their deaths.
Hes helping create a visible space for us to bear witness to the trauma, the pain, the amount of lost bodies, but also the amount of hope, said Jonathan McCrory, the National Black Theaters executive artistic director. We needed that. We needed someone to help us rethink and re-articulate the space in which our grief was amalgamating.
It was also the show that brought Ijames and Ali together. Ali, who has since directed Jocelyn Biohs Merry Wives and a revival of Anna Deavere Smiths classic Fires in the Mirror, had attended a table read in 2016. Ijames remembers being drawn to how Ali spoke about the text and interacted with the actors.
They didnt have much face time beyond that first meeting, though Ijames and Ali texted and called each other. (This was before Zoom became popular, Ijames noted.) Opening night was the first time Ijames saw Alis staging of his work. He loved it, but decided that in the future he didnt want to miss the chemistry that occurs when the playwright is actually in the room for the rehearsal process.
When they decided to collaborate again, Ali and Ijames gravitated toward Shakespeare. Both had developed an interest in the flexibility of the text at an early age; each cited Romeo and Juliet as the play that un-ruffed and de-frilled Shakespeare for them, allowing them to see the different language, lives and cultural experiences that could be welcomed into the text. For Ali, it started with performing Shakespeare with his peers in Kenya, where he was born and raised. It was malleable. It was playable. It was completely adaptable, he said. Coming to the States, Shakespeare is this other thing: mostly white people, very few people of color, and they speak a certain way.
He began inviting playwrights to work on Shakespeare adaptations with him. I was like, I want someone whose profession it is to work on the language. And I can talk about the world and the concept.
Ijames had already been drafting something along those lines, working on what would become Fat Ham in 2017. He had picked his favorite Shakespeare play, Hamlet, forming the idea from King Claudius and Queen Gertrudes wedding celebration in the second scene of the first act.
I was like, What if you could spill all of Hamlet into that party, that celebration, and tell the whole story there? What would change? What ultimately would these people find out and explore about each other in that pressure cooker of time? Ijames said.
The tragedy of Fat Ham is multifaceted, rooted not in murder and intrigue but in themes of homophobia, self-hatred and toxic masculinity. Ijames unpacks it all in a chili-and-cornbread combo of colloquial language and Shakespearean English, with characters that reflect an authentic Black experience.
Black people of the diaspora, in America, on the continent, anywhere else in the world we speak with music, we speak with meter, Ijames said.
IN SPEAKING ABOUT building the show, Ali and Ijames described how they complemented and trusted each other. Ijames mentioned Alis transformation of the karaoke scene in Fat Ham, staging it with an otherworldly theatricality. The lights shift, the characters movements slow down and Ali infuses the scene with what Ijames calls a physical vocabulary an unexpected choreographed sequence that includes metal-style headbanging. Ali noted his admiration for the spaces Ijames provides in the script for the director to extend his imagination. He cited the stage directions at the end, which begin, The play cracks open. What the audience sees is what the story evoked in Alis mind and its a joyous, glamorous break from what audiences may have come to expect. In other words, a party.
Any time I get to collaborate with him Im happy, because I dont have to explain things to him, Ijames said. He just understands.
The word trust surfaces frequently among the shows producers and cast members. Lord knows Black folks endure a lot of contorting to fit in spaces that were not made for ourselves, said Sade Lythcott, chief executive of the National Black Theater. So trust becomes almost like the alchemy or the catalyst for how we can communicate to each other and build something as beautiful as Fat Ham.
Marcel Spears, who portrayed Juicy off-Broadway and is returning to the role, describes an almost psychic synchronicity between Ijames and Ali in the rehearsal room. Its like mom and dad, he said.
This will also be Spears first time on Broadway, and four other cast members are making their Broadway debuts as well. Everybodys walking into it with a sense of urgency and pride and joy, he said.
Still, Fat Ham faces a commercial environment that is challenging for new productions especially plays by and about people of color. In the 2021-22 season, Broadway made history with the premiere of seven plays by Black playwrights. Yet many suffered financial losses (though not unusual for Broadway plays, particularly damning for work by already underrepresented artists) and a couple closed early, exacerbated by the surge in omicron cases.
Im shaking in my boots! Your boy is nervous, Spears said with an anxious laugh. He mentioned a good friend, Jordan E. Cooper, the playwright and star of Aint No Mo, and the early closing last fall of that show, which had a mostly Black creative team. I was disheartened because as a Black theater artist, I want our work to be seen as just as valuable and as important and as immediate to Broadway audiences as anything else.
Lythcott, reflecting on those closures, said: I think the way commercial theaters look at diversifying their audiences and appealing to culturally specific demographics, it still sometimes feels like Black folks are an idea and not living, breathing people. Thats the magic of James piece that he wrote: People can identify Tedra and Juicy; those are people that we know.
For his part, Ijames said he hopes that Fat Ham will attract a diverse, game New York audience who will enjoy whats happening onstage. His expectations are those of an artist shaped by a scrappier regional theater scene: We make the thing and then hopefully people come and hopefully it enlivens the community in which were making the thing. And so I hope that its going to do that. I hope that little stretch of 42nd Street is a little more Southern, a little more country.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times