Playwright James Ijames previews the Off-Broadway production of ‘Fat Ham’ at The Public

Critically acclaimed multiple award-winning Philadelphia-based playwright, director, actor, and educator James Ijames, an Associate Professor of Theatre at Villanova University, a Co-Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater, and a founding member of Orbiter 3 (Philadelphia’s first playwright producing collective), returns to NYC for the Off-Broadway premiere of his new comic tragedy Fat Ham at The Public Theater. The show, a co-production with the National Black Theatre of Harlem, is directed by The Public’s Associate Artistic Director Saheem Ali, who also helmed the world premiere of Ijames’ Kill Move Paradise at the NBT, which marked the playwright’s NYC debut.

James Ijames. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

In Fat Ham, Ijames reimagines Shakespeare’s iconic masterpiece Hamlet through the lens of Juicy – a sensitive and self-aware queer Black college kid in America’s South, grappling with serious questions of identity. When the ghost of his father shows up in the backyard, demanding that Juicy avenge his murder, it feels like a familiar story. A compelling examination of love and loss, pain and joy emerges from an uproarious family barbecue, with Juicy trying to break the cycles of trauma and violence in the service of his own liberation.

During a busy month of rehearsals, James was gracious enough to share his ideas and some background on the show, which begins previews next week.

What is it about Shakespeare?

James: For me it’s the characters and the stakes in the plays. Particularly the tragedies and the histories. And this is true of most great plays. My Fat Ham character Lena Younger and Hamlet’s Gertrude have so much in common and so much to lose in their respective plays. Shakespeare is just in a long tradition of playwrights who embrace scale right alongside deeply introspective and complex characters. The people in Shakespeare’s plays contradict our expectations and they talk to us. There is no fourth wall. There is no real subtext. Right? People mean what they say and do. That’s why we go back to plays. We revisit A Raisin in the Sun and Hamlet perennially because with the passage of time the characters and the stakes they are up against still resonate with us.

Members of the cast of Fat Ham in rehearsal. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What qualities in the character of Hamlet do you find most relatable?

He’s all over the place. I’ve usually seen him played as either this confused angry young man or a bleeding nerve of sadness. And I think he’s for sure both of those things but only for about ten minutes in that play. He’s mercurial and his mind is always working. I image his eyes are always grabbing what they can to figure out his next move. That’s rich territory for an actor and I think that’s why he’s become this kind of pinnacle for actors. He’s also just full of contradiction and like spiritual crisis. I think that’s what draws me to him. Cause I feel like that so much.

Can you tell us about your creative process in the conception and development of Fat Ham?

Sure, so, I wanted to work on a set of plays that look at a few Shakespeare characters through my lived experiences and I started with Hamlet. I knew I wanted to have Hamlet be close to what I was feeling right at the end of college, where I felt both kind of focused on a career but also still really confused about every other part of my life. So, I started to think about the major events of Hamlet and where I could place all those events in a single location. So, the barbeque made a lot of sense for this because it’s an event that collects people in one space. People are drinking and eating and then next thing you know people are arguing or dancing or playing cards or falling asleep cause they ate too much. It’s a rich cultural ritual that was a major part of my life growing up and still is a big family tradition.

Saheem Ali at a rehearsal of Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What do you appreciate most about The Public and your experience with the company and with director Saheem Ali?

Working with The Public has been a dream of mine, so I’m just so filled with gratitude. I worked with Saheem for the first time at the National Black Theater in Harlem, so it also feels REALLY significant that this production is a co-production with NBT. Saheem and I have become great collaborators and friends. I just love making theater with folks who see me, and I see them, and we love each other. The love is so strong. And then you assemble all that good energy in a single room and it’s just magic.

As both a playwright and an educator, what do you hope the audience will take away from the show?

Hamlet does what the ghost of his father tells him to do and we get a pile of dead bodies on the stage at the end of the play. I wonder about the inevitability of that. With that in mind, I hope they walk away knowing the trauma they inherit from their family, from history, from culture, from religions. We don’t have to accept it. We can choose different paths for ourselves and don’t have to continue the cycles we saw growing up. We can begin to imagine together what it could feel like to start anew.

Many thanks, James, for giving our readers an inside look at Fat Ham; I look forward to seeing it.

Fat Ham plays May 12-June 12, 2022, at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $60, plus fees), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.


  1. Congratulations to James Ijames for being honored today with the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fat Ham!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here