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Philly’s James Ijames, fresh off a Pulitzer win, on directing another Pulitzer-winner, ‘Fairview’

Fairview, which inventively takes on stereotypes, will be at the Wilma Theater for three weeks starting May 31. "It’s heavy material. Some of it is quite dark,” Ijames said.

Actors rehearse transition from act two to act 3 during dress rehearsal of Fairview at The Wilma Theater in Phila., Pa. on May 27, 2022.
Actors rehearse transition from act two to act 3 during dress rehearsal of Fairview at The Wilma Theater in Phila., Pa. on May 27, 2022.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

As plays go, Fairview is challenging. Its plot is complex to stage; the dialogue can be difficult to hear and say, and at times, the words are difficult to take. Fairview, which begins preview showings at the Wilma Theater on May 31 before opening night June 4, follows a Black family preparing for a reclusive matriarch’s birthday dinner, then shows them being observed by a group of white people.

One world peers into dynamics between family, while the other world features conversations that get problematic and racist. Both worlds play out on the stage at the same time. It’s a play that can make one consider not just stereotypes more deeply, but forced narratives that can harm Black people. First staged at New York’s Soho Rep in 2018, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2019.

“The initial challenge [was] getting the actors sort of emotionally in a place where they feel taken care of — it’s heavy material. Some of it is quite dark,” said James Ijames, the production’s director and Wilma’s lead artistic director. “And then, sort of the biggest obstacle after that is really just the technical aspects of doing it. Having essentially two scenes happening at the same time in that second act. Some of that text has to line up with the action pretty neatly. And it’s really hard. Much harder than I could have imagined.”

“When it lines up, and you see what Jackie Sibblies Drury is trying to do with the text, it’s like magic.”

Ijames’ has been busy. His play Fat Ham is currently on stage at the Public Theater in New York. A remix of Hamlet set to the tunes of African American cookout favorites, Fat Ham trades Hamlet’s Danish royalty for a barbecue family in the Black South. Hamlet becomes Juicy, a Black queer man suffering through the wedding of his newly widowed mom and uncle. In line with Shakespeare, Juicy hears from his father’s ghost that uncle really did do the widowing. The Wilma premiered Fat Ham as a filmed production in 2021. The play won the Pulitzer earlier this month.

“They’re all of these writers that I’ve admired my whole life that are in this category — Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, August Wilson, and Tony Kushner. I mean, there’s so many winners of the drama category that I’ve studied and poured over and acted in their work, directed their work,” said Ijames, also a theatre professor at Villanova University. “I just feel really humbled, but I also feel like I’m in community with people who are really curious about the form or where the form can go… I feel like I can have a deeper conversation. I can take more risks. I can be more bold with my own work.”

Ijames spoke to The Inquirer about the tensions of Fairview and what it has in common with Fat Ham. This conversation has been condensed for clarity and length.

I think one of the things that the play conveys is something that feels deeply familiar and I think would be deeply familiar to a number of Black folks — that feeling of being surveilled and also that understanding that dominant narratives about us are not actually under our control. I’m curious what you think about how the play makes those feelings seen and known.

I think it is in these moments where what we see the Black characters do lines up with what we hear the white characters say. That is, those are the places where it is the most distinct and clear. And it’s, I mean, it’s hard to like, you kind of have to just see it. It’s a visual, aural thing.

We programmed this play for the 2020 season, and I’m just now doing it. I’ve been reading this play for… almost four years by this time, and I don’t know that I really understood how those things were working in the play until we started to put it on its feet.

But I think the audience will sort of be thrown. I think it’s a play that’s quite disorienting for audiences. And I think disorientation is good for people who are maybe new to these ideas.

What does this play tell you about the white gaze? And does it reveal anything for you?

I feel like the play is not actually about the white gaze. I think it’s trying to give people of color a set of tools to affect change in how we are seen. So there are these moments in the latter part of the play where the absurdity of the white gaze makes itself utterly unappealing. And I think that there are people of color who very much want to fit inside of that. I don’t — I’m not particularly one of those people. I don’t particularly care what or how I’m seen by white people, or anybody for that matter. But I do think there are people who crave that acceptance, that validation to be clearly seen by, you know, whiteness. I think the play is asking you to imagine what if you didn’t want that? And then it’s the thing is asking of white audiences — I’ll use air as as a metaphor — there’s enough air for everybody.

It feels like, to me, that Keisha, the teenage daughter in the family, has so much more responsibility than all the other characters in the play. When it comes to explaining things, it felt like real life that like a character who was coded as queer would be put in this position, frankly. What do you make of her character and not just her role on the page, but her role in the play overall?

It’s hard for me to talk about Jackie’s intention, but what I am doing with it, and this is largely inspired by my associate director Suni B. Rose, who is amazing, who said something to me early in the process about Keisha that has just stuck with me, and has been a real guiding principle for how I’ve been directing. That generation of folks are seeing the world differently, and especially young queer people of color. I have observed this with my students. And I’ve also observed like myself, sort of like finding comfort in this — like seeing the world in a different way and refusing to accept what has been in the status quo.

I think Keisha has access to something that nobody else in the play has access to, which is why she has this relationship with the audience that no one else really has. Not to talk about my own work, but, in some ways, it’s what I do with Juicy [the lead character in Fat Ham]. Juicy has access to the audience because he is willing to go and talk to the audience about the truth. And I think Keisha does the same thing. I think it’s really true of that generation whether it’s we’re talking about Gen Z, or what comes after Gen Z?

Gen Alpha.

Gen Alpha! We’re just starting over aren’t we?

Their access to information, and growing up in a world where catastrophe wasn’t like something that happened somewhere else, but it’s something that happened here. And like that being their whole life. Just thinking about the last couple of weeks with these mass shootings. I remember a time when that was strange. I graduated from high school in 1999. Columbine was in 1999, and I remember being utterly paralyzed about going to school for the rest of my time there. I was a senior in high school. And I think that that generation has just like grown up in a world where that is not even like, novel, not even like, remotely unique. So I think their worldview is just really different. And I truly, truly, truly believe that Black queer young people are actively trying to create, to quote Rebecca Solnit, a paradise in hell.

The future that Juicy’s character might want, the future that Keisha’s character might want — do you feel like real life is truly headed towards there?

There are days that I do. Which is maybe how it works, but there are days where I don’t feel like that today. I haven’t felt like that. For a while. But then there are days, where I find myself in the midst of collective joy, or just like really sort of like organic mutual aid that happens recently. Like there’s a need in the space and we all find the things that are necessary to meet it. There are times when the value of something I’m exchanging with something is agreed upon between us and not some outside force that dictates what’s valuable and what’s not. I find the future that I want inside of those isolated moments.