Thursday, July 24, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 677: James Ijames

James Ijames

Hometown: Bessemer City, NC

Current Town: Philadelphia, PA

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I am currently working on a play I’m calling White. (At least for the moment) It’s inspired by the Joe Scanlan/Donelle Woolford/Yams controversy over at the Whitney a few months back. It explores who gets to make black art, what is black art, is personality a work of art and all those sort of contemporary art discussions that I love to have with my visual arts friends. I’m playing with some religious art imagery in the play as well as my expected use of magical realism and storying. I’m also doing some research for another play that uses history as a springboard. I want it to be for younger audiences but I’m not quite ready to talk about that yet.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  I recall driving from Bessemer City to Charlotte with my Mother, Father, Grandmother and sisters. (I think those are the players…not totally sure.) It was fall and my father was driving. My father asked me what I wanted to be for Halloween. I must have been pretty young.  I imagine I was maybe 7 or 8 but I could have been younger. Well I replied that I wanted to be a Ku Klux Klansman. It seemed reasonable enough to me. It’s basically a ghost costume but, you know, with a hat and stuff. My father firmly let me know what I was saying and explained the history that I was too young to understand. From that moment, I have been obsessed with history, with how history vibrated in the present and how humanity has the capacity for great good and the darkest of atrocity. It also was when I started to engage with imagery in a real way. I remember that moment so vividly because it was the first time I realized that an image, and for that matter, a story, can be multiple things. I thought the Klan costume was innocent, but the story that is attached to the image is not innocent. In my plays, I try to unpack story and imagery separately, while also finding the moments where the familiar image suddenly is telling a very unfamiliar story and vice versa.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I would make theater more inclusive and by extension less expensive. There are certainly place where these things are happening! The Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia just subsidized their ticket prices for example and I think they are going to draw a much more diverse audience that truly reflects Philadelphia as a whole. Along those same lines in regards to inclusion, I would want to see more stories that reflect the lives that make up all of America and not just a subscriber base, which is demographically a very small lens. I think we can do better with expanding audience and a part of that is grappling with stories that may be uncomfortable or difficult.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  In terms of writing I would say Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Childress, Lucille Clifton, Kevin Young, Lamar Kendrick, James Baldwin, Katori Hall, Derek Walcott, Elizabeth Alexander, Wole Soyinka, Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Marcus Gardley, Tennessee Willams, and Suzan Lori Parks. These writers, in their various genres have made an indelible print on not only my work but my world view. Also they show me that there is no such thing as “well made.” It’s well made if you made in and it’s what you need and what someone else needs. That’s the point, right? In terms of theatre as a practice I would say George C. Wolfe, Ed Sobel, Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, Paul Meshejian, Liesl Tommy, Whit McLaughlin, Terry Nolan, Blanka Zizka, Micheal Hollinger, and Ozzie Jones. This is a mix of heroes and actual mentors. People who have had an impact on me directly as an artist. With the exception of Wolfe, all of these people have touched and taught me in a very personal way and continue to.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I love to be moved. Whether it’s moved to tears or laughter or anger. I just want it to affect me, to make me think and long and need. I want to see something sublime and not ordinary. If I wanted to watch my own life I would stay at home. I don’t want to watch someone like me make choices I probably would make. That just doesn’t do it for me. What I love, is when something extraordinary happens to people who are extraordinary, even if they don’t recognize it. I like spectacle and music and big ideas. I don’t like cute and clever. I like my theatre to be epic and euphoric and sexy and smart and sometime difficult to understand. I like those plays that three days later it hits you and you are once again back in that theatre reliving it all over again.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Well I’m very much a playwright starting out, so I have a lot to learn, but I would say, find the people that love the things you love and be around them so they energize you. Your tribe, so to speak. Read all of the plays you can get your hands on, from the classics to the very contemporary. Just cause it’s old don’t make it right for you. Find people you trust and who understand your voice to give you feedback and read your work, not in a teacher/student sort of way but in a collaborative way. When I finish a play I send it to three very distinct people who give me three different kinds of feedback. It’s incredibly helpful. Lastly, know your value and your worth and that you have something to say. Some people will get it, some will not and that is entirely okay. Write for the people you want to reach and you will probably reach everyone. It’s weird the more specific I think a play is, the more universal it is. Oh and one more thing. When people say bad things about you, and let’s face it that will happen sometimes, consider the source and get back to work. Light the negativity on fire and used it for fuel.

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