James Egges on winning a Pulitzer and making Hamlet a comedy

Fat Ham, a comedy take on Hamlet at a Southern barbecue, hasn’t been produced yet due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But on Monday, the play won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, based on its script and after a streaming show held last year at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. And on Thursday, the production’s first performances to live audiences are set to begin off-Broadway at the Public Theater, in a co-production with the National Black Theatre.

“Fat Hamm” was written by James Eggams, 41, who grew up in Bessemer, North Carolina, and was educated at Morehouse College and Temple University (studied acting). He now lives in Philadelphia, where he is one of several co-art directors to experiment with a co-leadership model at the Wilma Theatre. His other notable works include “Kill Move Paradise”, “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” and “The Most Stunningly Unfortunate Trial of Miz Martha Washington”.

About an hour after the Pulitzers announced, I spoke to Ijames (pronounced “imes”) about the play and the award. This excerpt has been edited from the conversation.

So for those of our readers who have never heard of Fat Hamm, what is it all about?

“Fat Hamm” is a very loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that’s taken to the American South, and takes place in the backyard of a family who owns a grill. At its core, the play is about how this Hamlet character, named Juicy, meets and undermines her family’s cycles of trauma and violence. It’s really about how he brings the rest of his family with him to this realization that they don’t have to go through these cycles of abuse and violence, that they can do something completely different with their lives. It’s a comedy after all, so I take “Hamlet” and I’m basically making it not tragic anymore.

Where did the idea come from?

I’ve always loved Hamlet. When I was in college, I did an amputee production for her. And the scene when we first met Hamlet, in the court, I did that scene, and he was like, ‘That’s a wonderful scene. I think the whole play could exist within this moment. All the players are in the same room together, and what if everything in this court broke out in This moment, so was the whole Hamlet sweep into one scene?” And I wanted to take that and bring it a little closer to my experience by putting it in the mouths of people who look and sound like me, who have my rhythms and eat the kind of food I grew up eating. And I think it enlightens something about the origin.

We are clearly living in an extraordinary period, and I won this award after a virtual production. Tell me about it.

We basically got Airbnbs and put all the cast and crew in a bubble, and filmed it over the course of a month. It turned out to be really beautiful, and we were all really proud of it. And I’m really glad people are seeing a personal performance of that.

How do you think the personal experience will be different from the live broadcast experience?

Actors can feed into the audience reactions they hear. So I’m really excited to have this experience. I also made some adjustments to the play because it was moved from digital to live format. So I’m curious to see how that meets the audience.

Why are you a playwright?

When I was about 13, my parents divorced and I had a lot of anger and frustration, and writing was one of the ways my family tried to encourage me to work through it. And so I started writing skits and mini-plays, and I’ve been writing in dramatic form ever since. I think it’s a way for me to metabolize all the things I’m thinking about or being curious about.

Are you all theater or do you write for TV or film as well?

During the pandemic, I’ve started dipping my toe a little bit into TV and cinema and have some things I can’t really talk about.

In the meantime, I have taken up this position as Associate Artistic Director at Wilma. Tell me about how shared leadership works?

it was good. Shared leadership is always tough, and you always negotiate, making sure everyone has input. It takes longer to make decisions and work through things. But in the end, I think it makes the organization stronger. Everything we did as co-leader was managing and in some cases surviving a global pandemic. So I think we’ll learn a lot about how we feel about the shape next year.

How important is this award to you?

I love that people who write for a living saw something I wrote and saw something beautiful in it. I love the book. I love poets. I love journalists. I love fantasy book. And so I’m always really honored when I’m in the company of people who are curious about ideas.

What state would you make of people wondering if they would come to see this play?

I would say come watch it and laugh. Come watch it and maybe you will see a version of yourself reflected on you that you have never seen before. I would say come watch it as she tries to portray the journey from pain to pleasure. Come see if they are interested in transformation, how people can become new, and how people can become better versions of themselves.

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