James Ijames built his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fat Ham-an examination of Hamlet and Black masculinity, the nature of revenge, and intergenerational trauma-from his own experience of the play as an actor cast as Hamlet.
In a conversation with journalist Barbara Bogaev-lightly edited below-Ijames shares a bit of his thought process around adapting Shakespeare’s tragedy into a play he calls, “unabashedly Black and undeniably exuberant, resilient, and queer.”
Hamlet is a family drama at its core; it’s Cain and Abel. A brother kills his brother, and the generations that come after suffer as a result. I like that story, because you can walk into pretty much any culture and find that kind of story.
But there were things I wanted to change. I started to dream about how my version of these characters would react to the given circumstances of Hamlet: When the ghost shows up to Juicy, does Juicy respond the way that Hamlet does or does he respond in a distinctly different way?
In Fat Ham, the family aren’t royals; they’re people who own a barbecue restaurant. I wanted it to be a world that moved in and out of brutality, so that I could have a conversation about how the culture that the family deals with in their vocation seeps into who they are.
And Juicy is different from his family in a way that’s similar to Hamlet. Hamlet is also a bit of an outsider in that family. He just wants to go back to school. And be normal. But there’s this thing that’s in his way.
All of the younger folks in the play have to make decisions about whether or not they want to continue their family’s cycles of trauma and violence, whether that’s what they want their lives to look like and their relationships to each other to look like. I’m calling into question the stories that we’ve been passed down as wisdom. Because sometimes it’s wisdom, but more and more I look at those stories as cautionary tales of what you shouldn’t do.
I wanted to give the family a chance to not feel constrained by literature or by their family history. And overalcently, I’ve started to write things that don’t obscure pain or the possibility of death, or betrayal, but that get to some sort of place where the audience can see how the world could get better. I am trying to end my writing not in devastation, but in a striving for paradise.
Listen to full interview on Shakespeare Unlimited, a podcast from the Folger Shakespeare Library.