Actor/writer James Ijames has a busy year. The out Philadelphia transplant and Temple University grad appeared in a number of regional theater productions, including a celebrated staging of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America, in which Ijames played Belize. Later in the year Maukingbird Theater Company premiered The Threshing Floor, his one-man show about out writer James Baldwin. In August, he was announced as one of 5 finalists for the F. Otto Haas Award for Emerging Theater Artist. The recipient will be announced on October 4 at the Barrymore Awards. He was gracious enough to talk with me about his year, his play and what being gay and a person of color means to his art.
Q: You had a really busy year! How much of that is plain luck and how much is by design?
A: I don’t particularly believe in luck as a thing. But I certainly didn’t set out thinking, Oh, I want to win this thing. I was very much aware of [the F. Otto Haas Award] but I don’t know that I put down tracks to move in that direction.
Q: How did you find out that you were nominated?
A: I was very much aware that I was in the running—you’re invited to apply and be interviewed. They announce the Barrymore nominations in August. So, I got a call from my roommate, who is also nominated this year and she told me. I knew that it was coming and I knew that they were going to be announced at 4 o’clock. So I went to see a movie at, I think, 3:50, so I’d be thinking about something completely different.
Q: Let’s talk about the big piece of this year, your play The Threshing Floor. What was your impetus for writing it?
A: I have always loved James Baldwin as a writer. I read Go Tell It On The Mountain when I was 13 and I had this feeling of, “Wow, this is someone who understands this thing that I don’t have language for.” And then I read it again in college with completely different eyes and being a bit more open about my sexuality and who I was. And then I read it again in preparation for the show and every time I read it it brings something new to the table. It started out as just a project that I was working on in undergraduate. I continued to work on it through grad school, continued to write it and rewrite it… I gave it to Peter Reynolds, the director of Maukingbird [Theater Company] and he called me one day and was like, “Do you want to do this?”
Q: What is the future for this piece?
A: No clue. The tricky thing is that my primary mode of work is regional theater so my life doesn’t always belong to me. I would love to see it have a future outside of me, just as a piece of dramatic writing. It was never something that I was writing with my particular strengths as an actor in mind and I found that out when I was doing it. So, it’s something that I want people to feel like they can do. This is a life and a story that I feel like is important, that has become a bit obscured. There’s not a lot a lot of people talking about or looking at Baldwin as much as I would like.
Q: I was reading an article about Billy Porter, who is playing Belize in the revival of Angels in America Off-Broadway. He said that Belize is the only character that has ever spoken to him as a gay person of color. This year you played Belize and James Baldwin, two prominent representations of gay men of color. What do you feel like is your part in representation on stage, as a gay person of color and do you feel like there are opportunities there?
A: There’s totally an opportunity. It’s a tricky thing because in my writing I never approach anything with the mindset of “I have to do a certain thing because I am a certain thing.” No matter what play you read that I write, it’s clear that it comes from me as a black person. No what play you read that I write, there’s something in it that is clear that I’m gay. I don’t have an agenda. But it is who I am, and it comes through in the work. I do wish there was more that spoke to the black gay experience in theater. There’s very little. There’s Terrell Alvin McRaney [author of the Brother/Sister Plays and Run, Mourner, Run]—he’s really looking at that stuff in his writing… I think what was awesome about playing Belize was that I got to infuse him with a nobility that I don’t know is totally in the text. You could play him just for the snaps, if you will. But he’s the conscience of that play. He is the most together person in that world. He has his journey in Perestroika, but it’s not a journey that’s about figuring out who he is; his is journey that’s about righteousness and justice. So, yeah, I do feel like there’s a responsibility that I have and that I should continue to work toward really letting myself show in my work and not writing for a particular audience.
Q: Do you feel there’s a sort of tug between that ambition and writing to be commercially viable?
A: I’m very much the artist and very much the purist, but make no mistake: I am ambitious and I’m a businessperson. I totally write things where I’m like, “This will never see the light of day.” But, I also make sure to write plays that don’t have 19 characters and I make sure that I write plays that are relatively accessible. I do look at what people, perhaps, would be comfortable with. But I also try to open up a discourse about that, as opposed to just giving people the same thing. I do think about that and I think it would behoove any artist who wants to make a living at this to think about that.
Q: Speaking of discourse, what sort of reaction did you get to The Threshing Floor? Was it what you expected?
A: It was overwhelming—more than I’d expected. I felt like it would be something that would interest a segment of the community but I didn’t expect it to do as well as it did. Not because of its craftsmanship, but because of people’s interest. It did extremely well. It did a lot for me in terms of allowing people to see a versatility that I don’t necessarily get to show. It was great in that respect.
Q: Right now you’re appearing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the People’s Light Theater. What’s next for you?
A: I am doing Around the World in 80 Days at Delaware Theater Company. It’s going to be fun. Then my spring is pretty wide open, which I’m sort of looking forward to. This past year has been pretty jam-packed, so this spring I’m looking into some fellowships and some training stuff. I might even go on vacation. It’s high time. Then again, I auditioned Tuesday for a play that would go right into the spring. So, you never know. You never know.
R. Eric Thomas is a playwright, storyteller and essayist. He is the author of the plays “Lost Boy”, “The Spectator” (Run of the Mill Theater Company, 2005), and “The Affair” (LateNite Theater, 2001). He frequently participates in First Person Arts Story Slams and recently won Best Presentation at the Summer Grand Slam. He is currently working on a collection of non-fiction entitled “Enormously Awkward: (Mostly) True Stories + Things That Are Better Left Unsaid” and workshopping a new play.