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There are bets that pay off handsomely but predictably, like when a home increases in value over years. Then there are the jackpots you just can’t anticipate, like when a theater hires a promising up-and-comer and—four years and one global pandemic later—finds itself opening a brand-new work from a Pulitzer winner who’s become the toast of the town. Several towns, actually.
When Studio Theatre invited James Ijames to Washington to discuss a commission in the summer of 2019, he was a rising professional actor turned professional playwright who had won a number of prestigious awards and fellowships. His show Kill Move Paradise—inspired by the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy holding a toy gun, by a White Cleveland police officer—had been staged at the National Black Theatre in Harlem to strong reviews.
As Good Bones, the play Studio hired him to write opens in D.C., Ijames’ comedy Fat Ham is a month into its Broadway run at the American Airlines Theatre. Performances of Fat Ham, a queerer, Blacker, less blood-soaked remix of Hamlet that earned its author the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year, are scheduled through early August, and the play has been nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play. (Fat Ham will then get a Studio production this October.) If all that wasn’t enough, Ijames (pronounced like dimes, minus the D) is also working on at least one major TV project he’s not yet at liberty to discuss.
Broadway, shmawdway. TV, shmeevee. Good Bones, the Ijames play making its world premiere in Chocolate City, is set in an unnamed American metropolis where the ever-steepening incline of 21st-century capitalism has made it impossible for many working- and middle-class residents, living in the same communities their parents and grandparents did, to attain a comparable standard of living.
The play could be set in San Francisco, where the tech boom has cooled but the housing costs it drove into the stratosphere have remained. It might be Philadelphia, where the century-old home Ijames shares with his husband in the ethnically diverse Whitman neighborhood has roughly doubled in value since he bought the place in 2011. Or it could be in D.C., where the 1978 opening of the Studio Theatre helped spur a slow but steady redevelopment of the blighted 14th Street NW corridor—which sustained lasting damage in the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. a decade earlier—into a neighborhood that now has high-end fitness studios and artisanal coffee shops. (Whole Foods didn’t arrive on P Street NW until 22 years after Studio opened.)
The play examines the effects of gentrification as experienced by four Black characters. Aisha, a prosperous, and very pregnant, urban planner, has just moved back to the neighborhood where she grew up in public housing, and where she and her husband, Travis, are renovating a townhouse where they’ll start their family. Earl, the contractor they hired, is a contemporary of Aisha’s who never left the neighborhood. He has strong feelings about what the influx of upwardly mobile types such as Aisha are doing to his community. Earl’s younger sister Carmen is helping him with work while she’s on summer break from college.
Ijames has subtitled Good Bones “a kind of ghost story.” But speaking with City Paper via Zoom from New York, he says it’s also “the closest thing to kitchen sink drama I’ve ever written. Because I hate kitchen sink drama.”
It’s a fact that many of his other plays use absurd or otherworldly devices to deliver their satiric payloads. The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington finds the widowed former first lady ailing and attended to by the enslaved people her husband had pledged to free upon her death. In a series of hallucinations, these servants and other, more famous, historical figures confront Mrs. Washington about her culpability in sustaining America’s Original Sin. The similarly history-straddling TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever has TJ, the White dean of a southern college, taking an inappropriate interest in Sally, his much younger Black research assistant. Finally, in Kill Move Paradise, four young Black boys find their way through the afterlife after being shot dead in individual encounters with police.
Then of course there’s Fat Ham, which takes a lighter approach in its examination of generational trauma as experienced by Black people. An introspective kid named Juicy takes the place of the brooding prince, and the setting is a backyard barbecue instead of a gloomy castle in Denmark. The ghost, however, remains.
Which is not to say that Good Bones’ relatively modest supernatural element—the children’s laughter that already fills the house where Aisha and Travis are awaiting the birth of their first child—is purely metaphorical. “I didn’t want to abandon my genuine feeling that the space between where we are and where our ancestors are is kind of thin,” Ijames says. “I feel that deeply in my life, that sense of being watched over by people who’ve come before.”
Ijames grew up in Bessemer City, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte. Artistic talent—in music, writing, and visual art—was abundant in his working-class family. “My great-grandmother could look at an illustration in a Sears catalog, then cut the pattern and make the dress,” he remembers. Ijames was a choral singer in high school and his first year at Morehouse College. But exposure to plays such as Suzan–Lori Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and Mac Wellman’s Description Beggared; or the Allegory of Whiteness persuaded him to focus on theater instead. In 2003, he moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University’s graduate program in acting. The city nurtured his gifts. “Philly is full of movement-based, experimental, clown-based theater,” he says. “Even as an actor I was empowered to be generative.”
The plays that subsequently inspired him as a writer after he performed in them as an actor run more toward Angels in America—he’s played Belize, the drag queen turned nurse, in two different productions—and Superior Donuts. If Tony Kushner’s world-shaking seven-hour AIDS epic and Tracy Letts’ gentle two-hander (which inspired a sitcom) seem to have little in common, consider that evidence of Ijames’ interest in many different things.
It was that wide-ranging fluency, more than any particular topical or tonal mandate, that made Studio want to do an Ijames play, recalls David Muse, who took over as artistic director from Studio’s founder, Joy Zinoman, in 2010. “I remember reading Kill Move Paradise in probably 2018, and I thought there was something interesting there,” Muse says. “A theatrical imagination. An actor’s sense of how to write a good part. And he had something to say.”
Ijames accepted an invitation to come to D.C. for two weeks in the summer of 2019. Studio arranged for Shellée M. Haynesworth, the cultural historian who created the “transmedia project,” Black Broadway on U, to take him on a tour of Shaw and the U St. corridor in Northwest, where a vibrant community of Black performing artists had flourished a century earlier. Otherwise, Ijames remembers, he mostly walked around and talked to people. D.C. wasn’t a town he’d spent a lot of time in. Even so, “I wanted to write something that was in conversation with D.C.,” he says. By the end of that visit, it was clear that this new work would exhibit a more naturalistic style than Ijames had employed in the past.
Still, Muse says the in-progress play that Ijames brought back to Studio to workshop in front of an audience half a year later surprised him. “It was the most exciting reading I’ve ever been to,” says Muse. “We do a lot of them, and they’re useful, but they’re rarely electric.” Muse doesn’t remember exactly how Studio promoted the event, but the reading brought in a more diverse crowd than the typical audiences who tend to show up for new play readings. In Muse’s recollection, the audience heard the first four scenes—slightly less than half the play Studio is now performing. That was enough to fuel a lively 45-minute discussion of the themes and issues Good Bones explores, and of how Studio itself has contributed to the transformation of the neighborhood around it.
“The institutional narrative I inherited [from Zinoman] had to do with development and revitalization,” Muse says. “Studio cast itself as a positive force in a neighborhood that was blighted. It’s really just been in the past number of years that we’ve taken a look at that institutional history and re-described it. Looked into the complexity of it.”
Though it’s that very complexity that drives the conflict in Good Bones, Muse says he gave Ijames very few notes as the play took shape. He credits dramaturg Adrien–Alice Hansel, “our new play doula,” for working closely with the playwright to realize the work’s potential.
Psalmayene 24, the director of Good Bones who goes by “Psalm,” is, like its author, a multi-hyphenate theater-maker. He also acts and writes, in addition to emceeing Psalm’s Salon, a semi-regular (and free) Studio-hosted event featuring music, food, and conversation with the artists involved in current or upcoming Studio projects. On a dinner break from a daylong tech rehearsal three days before the play’s first preview, Psalm sits in the sun-filled atrium of Studio’s fourth-floor lobby and recalls that he and Ijames first met as actors in 2013. They both participated in a reading at Howard University of a screenplay that Danny Glover was developing about John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859.
Psalm has been a part of Good Bones’ development process since that first reading at Studio. Time has gone blurry for many of us in recent years, but he zeroes in on the date of their final rehearsal prior to the public reading. He recalls Ijames checked his phone on a break and passed along the sad news that Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter were among the nine victims who’d died in a helicopter crash in California. It was January 26, 2020, six weeks before the world shut down.
When the Pulitzer jury honored Fat Ham in May of 2022, the play hadn’t even received an in-person production yet. Originally slated for the 2020-21 season at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre—where Ijames was one of the company’s rotating artistic directors at the time—the play premiered as a digital production that director Morgan Green shot in Virginia. The Wilma Fat Ham video is not currently available (you can watch a trailer online), but Ijames says Green managed to capture something of the continuity and propulsion of live theater through meticulous blocking and cinematography: The 114-minute video is comprised of only eight or nine very long shots.
Meanwhile, Ijames has another new play, Abandon, in a short run at the Theatre Exile in Philadelphia. Like Good Bones, it’s largely naturalistic, but it does have a ghost. And it’s powered by ideas its creator can’t stop thinking about. “I tend to write my anxieties into plays,” he says. And more success and notoriety means more, or at least different, anxieties.
“What is my responsibility to the place that I come from?” Ijames reflects. “I didn’t move back to Bessemer City. I could go buy a house in the community I grew up in and terrorize everybody around there. I didn’t, but Aisha from Good Bones is grappling with that idea.”
Psalm says the strength of characters like Aisha, already evident on the page, has made itself more apparent as the show developed in rehearsals. “We look at gentrification through the lens of all Black characters, which I think helps us to get to that universal core.”
Ijames, for his part, says he isn’t necessarily done mining Shakespeare’s tragedies for comedy, either.
“I want to play with Othello,” he says. “I’ve been toying with this idea that Othello is a computing expert who is working on A.I. And the A.I. starts to mess with his perception of what’s happening. The family gets sort of Stepfordized by the end of the play. It’s pulling on the strains of what jealousy does to a marriage. What happens when you give your confidence and trust to someone who doesn’t deserve it.”
“I’m also interested in Cleopatra as a character,” he reveals. “But I haven’t figured out how to queer [Antony and Cleopatra] and make it Black just yet.”
Good Bones, written by James Ijames and directed by Psalmayene 24, runs through June 18 at Studio Theatre. studiotheatre.org. $50–$105.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated with the announcement that Studio Theatre will produce Fat Ham this fall, as part of the theater’s 2023-24 season, as announced May 16.