James Ijames is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, director and educator. The North Carolina native pulls from his experiences growing up in his community. His productions are extremely intentional, they provide a voice to the disenfranchised and tell stories that are oftentimes ignored.
Rolling out spoke with Ijames about his recent production, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington and what inspired it.
Why is it important for you to tell your stories from the Black perspective?
I want to be walking in the footsteps of people who have already done it really beautifully. I want to walk in the footsteps of August Wilson and Lorraine Hansbury. And for folks who are still with us folks like Susan Murray Parks and and Lynn Nottage. I like being with people that look like me and sound like me and have a similar worldview to mine. That’s really important to me. I get a lot of joy and pleasure out of that. I recognize that oftentimes my plays are being performed in front of not the most diverse audiences, so it’s really important to me. Especially for the Black people and the people of color in those audiences; I’m showing them versions of themselves in my work. I don’t want it to be about trying to educate White people about Black people. It’s much more important to me that Black people can see themselves as fully fleshed out, interesting, complex people on stage.
What inspired this play?
I worked for a number of years at a museum in Philly called the National Constitution Center. I started out doing a school show called the living news. I got promoted to a marque show called Freedom Rising. While I was there, the director of theater programs Nora Quinn, would have me write these ancillary theater pieces, like a traveling exhibition.
There was one about Mount Vernon and George Washington. While researching I’d seen this letter from Mary Cranch to Abigail Adams describing how Martha was afraid because she knew that, after she passed, the enslaved people would be emancipated. She became very afraid that they were going to kill her. I discovered this and thought this is a fantastic story. The theatricality I could play with is enormous. It’s a real romp through American cultural production and sort of like this meditation on the founding of the country.
What do you want people to take away from this production?
What I hope people take away from it is a real reexamination of how we look at history. So much of the history that we’re taught has been sanitized and structured in such a way that it sort of keeps folks passive. I want people to reconsider history. I want people to reconsider the people from American history in particular that we put on pedestals. They were deeply flawed people.
The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington is playing at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago through Oct. 9, 2022.