James Ijames: Writing his name in lights

Prepare to be dazzled by this week’s Portrait, James Ijames, an actor and a playwright.

As an actor, he has appeared regionally at Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia Theatre Company, The Wilma Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage and Interact Theatre Company. As a playwright, his shows include “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” which received its world premiere with Flashpoint Theater; “WHIITE”; “Moon Man Walk”; “The Threshing Floor”; and “Osiris: Redux.” Ijames won the 2011 F. Otto Haas Award for Emerging Artist and two Barrymores for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play for “Superior Donuts” and “Angels in America,” as well as a Barrymore for Best Direction of a Play for “The Brother Size.” He’s a 2015 Pew Fellowship Recipient and is an assistant professor of theater at Villanova University. He is also a founding member of Orbiter 3, a member of InterAct Core Writers Group and a mentor for The Foundry. 

PGN: So how do you pronounce that last name?

JI: It’s pronounced “I’ms.” The J is silent.

PGN: How’d that happen?

JI: I’m not really sure! I have a friend who’s into surnames, and he said it’s Welsh and means “of James.” I’m a junior, so that works for me.

PGN: Are you a Philly native?

JI: I’m not. I’m originally from North Carolina. I came here for graduate school at Temple and just stayed. The theater community is really vibrant and there’s a diversity of things that you can do here: traditional regional theater, small black-box theater, films — it’s all available here. I love the energy of the city itself.

PGN: Tell me about growing up in North Cackalacky?

JI: [Laughs] What? That’s such a native thing! I haven’t heard that for a while. It was nice. My mother worked in the school system and they have really good public schools there. I grew up surrounded by a large extended family — grandmothers on both sides, great-grandmothers, lots of cousins. There was a constant flow of family in and around. Talk about “raised by a village.” It was super-defining for me in a very beautiful way.

PGN: What was a favorite holiday tradition?

JI: In my family Christmas was our primary holiday. You hear about the 12 days of Christmas … our celebration went on and on. It’s the one thing I make sure I’m home for every single year. I must be home for at least the three-day extravaganza: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and a big brunch the next day. One year we had a dance party. It’s just a lot of fun and a way for me to reconnect and re-energize.

PGN: Any siblings?

JI: I have two sisters, one older and one younger. They’re both still in North Carolina.

PGN: A silly memory with your sisters?

JI: One year we all got big boxes of crayons, you know with like 84 crayons or so. I was very particular about my stuff and I made sure to keep my crayons neat and sharpened. I wanted them pristine so I barely used them. My younger sister was notorious for getting into my things and so when I saw her using my crayons I lost it. I grabbed her box of crayons and in a fit of anger broke all of them. She looked up at me with a shake of her head and said, “Actually, those are yours … I’m playing with my own crayons.” I was so upset I went to my room and grabbed a big plastic bag, one of those Wendy’s bags that you get salad in, and packed it to run away from home. I think I packed a shoe and a cassette tape, with no cassette player. It was just a mess! They tease me to this day about it. I was so dramatic!

PGN: Were you shy or outgoing?

JI: That’s a hard question, it depends on the situation. You know when you take that Myers-Briggs personality test? Sometimes I come out as an introvert, sometimes an extrovert. I was very active in the church growing up and I could sing solos at choir but I wasn’t very talkative in class. Even now, my job is to be in front of people, both as a teacher and as an actor, but I oddly feel much more comfortable as a playwright, where it’s just me and the words.

PGN: When did you catch the acting bug?

JI: In college; I was a really late bloomer. I actually thought I was going to be a choral music teacher. I started college as a music major and then I auditioned for a musical and got in. I’d always written little plays and skits, but never thought of the theater as something I could make a living at.

PGN: Where did you go to school?

JI: I got my MFA in acting from Temple and received a BA in drama from Morehouse College in Atlanta.

PGN: What was a favorite class?

JI: Can I pick two? In my freshman year, it was a world-history class with an African-American slant to it. It was when I realized, Wow, I’ve been taught a very slim depiction of the larger narrative. The professor, Dr. Carlton Usher, was a mesmerizing teacher. He brought history alive and really made it compelling. The other class was called “Black Masculinities.” That class has had the most lasting effect on how I think about gender, how I think about race in relationship to gender and sexuality, how I think about what masculinity is and the possibilities of that. It’s hugely influential on me as a person an as an actor.

PGN: What are the benefits of going to a historically black college or university?

JI: I was always encountering black excellence. I was surrounded by brilliant black people. And I’m third-generation college-educated so I’m not someone who didn’t know the worth and value of education and striving for excellence, but it was quite a different thing to be immersed in it, to feel, Wow, everyone here is really smart and accomplished. I come from educators and teachers, so I don’t come from money, but what was great about the school was that you were conditioned to move through the world in a princely way. And I liked that. The world media was telling you one thing about what kind of person you were and could possibly be and Morehouse taught you that you get to set that narrative for yourself. That was really empowering and powerful for me, especially as a young person.

PGN: I would guess other benefits are that you aren’t the “exceptional” black person and that you aren’t put in a position to be “the expert” on all things black like you would be in many predominantly white schools.

JI: Yes, I think the reason many people go to HBCUs is that desire to not have to be the person that people come to to ask, “What do you think, what is your position on this?” but for us all to be asking questions together and disagreeing with people that look like you, proving that we’re not monolithic or of a singular mind. We have very affluent students who are fifth- and sixth-generation college-educated people and people who are the first in their families to go to college. There are all different points of view and it’s all miraculous and exciting.

PGN: How old were you when you came out?

JI: Oh boy! I was old. It’s a tricky thing. I’ve never really come out to my father, never said the words. But if you Google me, the first thing that comes up is “Out gay black actor” so I think he knows. I did tell my mother and individually told other people. My mother was very kind about it and it was a largely uninteresting experience.

PGN: What was the first play that you wrote?

JI: When I was 13, I wrote something for my grandmother’s church. It was a Christmas play. Someone recently gave my mother a copy of the script that they had saved from a rehearsal and she sent it to me. I have to say it wasn’t very good.

PGN: [Laughs] I wasn’t expecting that. Don’t be so hard on your 13-year-old self.

JI: I know. The first play I wrote where I’d consider myself a playwright was in college. It was a retelling of the Osiris myth.

PGN: Are you a history buff?

JI: I am. I think it was nurtured with that class at Morehouse, I really do. There was a split second where I thought I might be a history teacher.

PGN: The power of a good teacher. What inspired you to write about Martha Washington?

JI: The fascination with her came from watching a documentary on PBS called “Africans in America.” It really chronicled the African-American journey from first contact with the New World, to Jamestown, through emancipation. One of the episodes prominently featured Martha Washington’s decision to free her slaves early, which I thought was interesting because George Washington stipulated in his will that the slaves that he owned, the dowry slaves … people were given as dowry, insane huh? Anyway, his will stated that they weren’t to be freed until Martha’s death and that the other slaves were to be inherited by her children. But she freed them while she was alive and the interesting thing was that she apparently thought they were planning to kill her. She moved to a small bedroom on the third floor because she was frightened of them. I’ve always been into speculative examinations of history and speculative fiction. I like the “what if?” scenarios. There was a letter that was written by Mary Cranch, who was a bit of a gossip at the time. She was writing to her sister Abigail Adams and basically saying, “Girl, she’s flipping out!” So I started writing about the situation: Was it scary, funny, suspenseful? What if I used contemporary story idioms within this antebellum tale? It was a lot of fun.

PGN: What curiosity drew you to James Baldwin?

JI: I had a professor who used to constantly tell me I looked like him. [Laughs] At first I had a very … let’s say … negative response to that. But then I started to read his books and came to realize why he made the comparison. I do favor him a little but I think it’s more of an affinity for the way he thought about race and gender. He was always thinking ahead, he was never passive in his thoughts about society. I wanted to have a chance to be him in some fashion so I started working on a solo show examining his life through the eyes of a student who idolized him.

PGN: And you played him?

JI: [Laughs] I played everybody. I think there were 14 different characters.

PGN: Cool. What was your biggest stage mishap?

JI: I was doing “Around the World in 80 Days” and there’s a moment where my character was supposed to jump on a train and then shimmy down the side and slide underneath it. They’d choreographed a way to do it from a stack of trunks that were on the set and I somehow missed my footing or where my hands were supposed to be placed and I fell …  onto the assistant stage manager! As I fell, my thoughts were, Oh my God, I’m going to die right now in front of all these people. What a way to go. The only reason I didn’t fall straight onto my head was because the stage manager caught my shoulders and flipped me onto my feet. It was super scary in the moment but it could have been a lot worse.

PGN: Well, if you can’t make a splash, at least make a splat! What are some of the struggles of being a full-time actor?

JI: The thing about being an actor is that you’re constantly interviewing for a job. That can be scary, but it’s part of the deal. You develop a network of people around you who can support and encourage you. What I tell my students …

PGN: Ah, I forgot, you have that to fall back on.

JI: Yes, and it’s great. I’m on the tenure track and it’s my primary job so it lets me pick and choose the acting that I want to do in a much more intentional way. I can be more selective and decisive about what I want to do instead of needing to do it for the money. But one of the things I tell my students is that people tend to romanticize the business as this thing that is always rewarding and always full of passion, and it often is — especially if it’s what you love and what you’re good at. But sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it hurts and sometimes you get rewards and awards and sometimes you fall off of trunks. Sometimes you don’t work for weeks and sometimes you get so many offers you don’t know what to do. It’s more like hiking than cruising with all sorts of ups and downs. You do it because you must, not because you think it’s an easy way to become rich and famous. I’d say the vast majority of working actors are not rich or famous.

PGN: I’d think being an actor, you’d have to worry about things like health care.

JI: Yes, it’s super scary. Pre the Affordable Care Act, I went for years without health care. You wonder about making your rent, but I think that’s the same for anyone coming out of college and entering the workforce.

PGN: I’m looking at your résumé. How’s your swordplay?

JI: Oh gosh, in grad school we had to take stage combat but I haven’t done a show where I had to wield a sword since “Romeo and Juliet” and then it was more of a dagger. In my upcoming play, I have to do a knife fight with myself, which ought to be interesting.

PGN: Hmmm, what are some other interesting courses you have to take as an actor that we might not think of? I see you have several dialects listed as well.

JI: We had to take speech, which was not only learning dialect or accents, but it also teaches you how to neutralize any regional dialect you might have. I’m from the South, and I don’t have much of an accent but there are certain words that I never managed to completely scrub clean. When I’m tired I tend to do things like make the word 10 into a two-syllable word: “te-yun.” We also took modern, ballet, tap and social dance. We had to learn theater history and take four hours of acting class each day. We learned Shakespeare and the Alexander technique, which has to do with posture and the body, voice and how not to lose it. There was a lot.

PGN: Who’s an actor you’d like to do a love scene with?

JI: Rami Malek, that guy from “Mr. Robot.” He’s totes hot. Or Oscar Isaac.

PGN: Something you’re often complimented on?

JI: When it’s longer, people compliment me on my hair, which is weirdly often accompanied by them petting me.

PGN: In high school I was voted …

JI: Most dependable. Not the sexiest category. But people know they can count on me, which means a lot to me.

PGN: Any tattoos?

JI: I have several. My very first tattoo consists of two Chinese characters that are supposed to say “The Virtuous Way” but I didn’t research them very well, so who knows? I have one on each shoulder with a constellation of stars. On the base of my neck I have an African Akan symbol, Gye Nyame, which means “I fear no one but God.” In Kevin Young’s book “The Grey Album,” he talks about “elsewhere” being a driving idiom for African-American storytellers. We’re always interested in getting to a place where we can be freer, so I have “elsewhere” on my arm. Last is an arrow, which is my tribute to the last line in “Paris is Burning,” which was “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”

PGN: Are you a method actor?

JI: Oh God no.

PGN: That brings to mind the famous quote when Sir Laurence Olivier was working with Dustin Hoffman on “Marathon Man.” Hoffman told him that he’d stayed up for three days because that’s what his character had done and Olivier quipped, “Why don’t you just try acting?”

JI: [Laughs] Exactly! It’s called acting, not being. If it were being, and you had to play a plumber, why not just hire a plumber? n

For more information on Ijames, visit www.jamesijames.com.  

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