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The Wilma announces new season and leadership changes

The Pulitzer-winning James Ijames is stepping down as the theater's co-artistic director. Actor Lindsay Smiling will be stepping in.

Wilma Theater co-artistic directors Lindsay Smiling, Morgan Green, and Yury Urnov.
Wilma Theater co-artistic directors Lindsay Smiling, Morgan Green, and Yury Urnov.Read moreJohanna Austin

The Wilma Theater announced its upcoming season and a change in leadership on Friday. Fat Ham, James Ijames’ Pulitzer-winning comedy now on Broadway, will kick off the Wilma’s four-play season in November, while the new leadership model begins in August.

In 2020, the Wilma transitioned from having one cofounding artistic director, Blanka Zizka, to three co-artistic directors in an experimental shared leadership model. Ijames, Morgan Green, and Yury Urnov stepped into those roles and took turns serving as the lead artistic director over the last three seasons.

Now, the Wilma is taking the collective model a little further and doing away with the rotating lead artistic director.Three artistic directors will now work together to develop new productions and spearhead the theater’s vision. Urnov and Green will stay on, while Ijames is stepping down. Actor Lindsay Smiling, currently performing in his 19th production for the Wilma, Eternal Life Part 1, will become the new co-artistic director Aug. 1. The trio will lead the theater with managing director Leigh Goldenberg.

Smiling is a member of the theater’s HotHouse Company and a founding member of the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia. Those who watched Wilma’s filmed world premiere of Fat Ham, which Green directed, will remember Smiling playing both the father Pap and the brother Rev.

“I have such a long history with the Wilma, it was kind of my first professional job out of grad school [at Temple],” said Smiling. “Actors don’t really get a chance to grow with a theater company … To carry that history into this position in the artistic director role [will] give us as a theater an opportunity to really utilize the company of actors in its fullest sense.”

Urnov said that the artistic directors had already been working more collectively since the pandemic, when they had to operate with all hands on deck. Now the shared responsibility is more formalized. “I would recommend it. It’s a different kind of thinking, to rethink the structure, the idea of hierarchy,” he said.

“By having three artistic directors, you are flattening out the power at the top of the structure, which is one step for disrupting some of the more embedded institutionalized racism that American theaters suffer from,” Green said. The new structure, she said, gives them more flexibility to develop productions over time, not just in a one-year period.

Fat Ham will be directed by Amina Robinson and run Nov. 24 through Dec. 17. The reimagined Hamlet will likely be a hot ticket; it will be the first time it will be staged with a live audience in Philadelphia.

Following Fat Ham will be the world premiere of My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion, a coproduction with D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, directed by Urnov; it will run Jan. 30 to Feb. 18. The new play, by Ukrainian playwright Sasha Denisova and translated by Misha Kachman, examines Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is inspired by Denisova’s conversations with her mother. To cope with her fear, the main character, Sasha, creates fantasies of her 82-year-old mother in Kyiv working with President Zelensky to combat the invaders.

The Good Person of Setzuan, adapted by Tony Kushner and directed by HotHouse Company’s Justin Jain, is a reimagination of the 1943 Brechtian classic. Jain will lead a pan-Asian cast and incorporate live percussion in this new version that runs April 2-April 21, 2024.

Lastly, Green will direct the world premiere of the contemporary opera Hilma, running June 4-23, 2024. Centering on Sweden’s Hilma af Klint, an early 20th-century queer painter and mystic, the opera features rock, musical theater, and pop music led by Robert M. Johanson.