In a new play, a writer tackles a touchy subject: Black class conflict

As he walked the quickly gentrifying neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., on a go to a while in the past, it occurred to James Ijames, a 2022 Pulitzer winner for “Fat Ham,” that there was a new play virtually tapping on his shoulder.

“The historical class struggle is still very much with us,” the dramatist stated in a latest interview. “And there are people who, and I count myself in this category, Black people who attain a certain level of affluence — if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to lose sight of where we’ve been, what we’ve been through, what the cost was.”

The contemplation of a problematic class divide propelled Ijames, whose “Fat Ham” is now Tony-nominated and running on Broadway, onto the trail of his newest comedy-drama. “Good Bones,” the story of a wealthy Black couple who transfer onto a redeveloped metropolis block, unprepared for the dangerous karma they instigate, is getting a vibrant world premiere at Studio Theatre. A four-person solid directed by Psalmayene 24 deftly animates a plot that feels a lot of the second it may have gone viral on a information web site somewhat than stay to the stage. A loud, late-night block celebration prompts a criticism to police that causes extra troubling penalties than the couple anticipated.

Studio’s inventive director, David Muse, requested the 42-year-old Ijames (pronounced IMES) for a new play a number of years in the past, earlier than “Fat Ham” made him a scorching writer; his success led to his latest determination to go away Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, the place he was one among its trio of inventive administrators. Although solely one among out of 4 performs that Studio commissions in the end will get produced by the corporate, Muse was not shocked when Ijames’s made the minimize.

“I could just tell that this was a guy with a theatrical imagination and felt like he had something to say,” Muse stated. “Writing a play about gentrification in which all the characters are Black: It’s such a simple and brilliant idea.”

To Psalmayene 24, a D.C.-based director and playwright who goes by “Psalm,” Ijames has in “Good Bones” not simply a sharp idea but additionally a platform for a deeper exploration of identification than we’re accustomed to. “One of the beautiful aspects of this play is that it gives us a nuanced view into Blackness as well,” Psalm stated. “These are characters who will seem familiar, but we haven’t quite seen these takes on these types of characters before. And I think what it does is it subtly or not so subtly shatters certain stereotypical images of the African American experience.”

That intention comes by means of even in works that hew nearer to magic realism, equivalent to “Fat Ham.” Set in North Carolina, the place Ijames grew up, the play takes place within the yard of a suburban Black household, the place a farcical modern-day riff on “Hamlet” unfolds. The Shakespearean parallels lengthen to the looks of a lifeless patriarch coming out of a barbecue grill to demand his son avenge his homicide.

“Fat Ham,” to be staged by Taylor Reynolds at Studio in October, appears destined to be produced in all places. The comedy’s success is a gratifying milestone for a playwright from Bessemer City, N.C., a neighborhood of about 5,500 outdoors Charlotte, who began out as an actor and had an affinity for language.

“I learned by reading plays, by kind of writing plays that were really bad for a really long time until they got a little better,” Ijames stated. “And then they got pretty good. And I think I’m still kind of in the ‘pretty good’ phase.”

He’s “always on the hunt,” he stated, for conversations he can use. “I like to listen to the way that people speak. When I was riding the bus in Philly, I used to love putting ear buds in and not listening to anything on them, so that I could eavesdrop. Because it’s amazing what people say on public transport. Amazing, the things you can hear!”

The outsize personalities who fill his performs are fictional essences of those that surrounded him in childhood. “I grew up in a big family with big characters. They’re larger-than-life people,” he stated. “I love when I’m watching something, and the turn of phrase is just so unique and surprising. I love that so much, because so much of my life, I grew up with people who spoke in very musical ways, used language in these really like, flowery ways. I think about my grandfather praying, and the way he prayed, it sounded like the King James Bible.”

His grandmother, a deaconess within the church the household attended, was answerable for the annual Christmas play. When Ijames was 15, he recalled, she stated: “‘You’re going to write the script for this.’ And I did. And I think I was in it, too.”

He hemmed and hawed once I requested what it was about — “I was playing with the form!” he protested — then lastly fessed up. “It was about this kid who … is on the wrong side of the tracks, but then he gets better, and then he comes to church, and everything’s great.”

That sunny denouement, truly, shouldn’t be out of step with the emotional pitch of performs Ijames would write a long time later. Take “Fat Ham”: It could also be impressed by a classical tragedy, however that doesn’t imply it has to finish like one. “The script says that the play cracks open into a celebration of the feminine,” the playwright stated, including that how a director and solid interpret that’s as much as them. “And that’s enough space for someone like Saheem Ali,” director of the Broadway “Fat Ham,” “to walk up to that script and go, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve got.’” (What Ali does with the ending, in live performance with actor Calvin Leon Smith, is certainly fabulous.)

Ijames says his function fashions are writers equivalent to Lynn Nottage, whose performs vary wildly in fashion and theme, together with satire and social realism. The comment is borne out by “Good Bones,” which owes extra to August Wilson, and maybe Lorraine Hansberry, than to William Shakespeare. Cara Ricketts and Joel Ashur carry urbane magnetism to Aisha and Travis, a couple emblematic of the upscale inflow: She’s a (pregnant) city planner; he’s chef-owner of a chichi haven of recent Southern cooking. (“Down-home tapas,” he calls it.)

Their home as soon as belonged to a neighborhood legend, Sister Bernice, and within the eyes of Johnny Ramey’s Earl, a contractor and lifelong resident, the householders are interlopers (despite the fact that he helps them renovate the historic homestead). Though town isn’t specified, D.C. actually matches, as Ijames lucidly diagrams the social tensions. The battle right here is over how a lot hurt is inflicted by an prosperous Black couple once they crowd out poorer Black individuals who have a “richer” declare on native tradition and historical past.

The play itself is an enriching expertise, a demonstration of Ijames’s dexterity with a standard, well-made play. In Psalm’s staging on Misha Kachman’s pleasing rendition of a reworked kitchen, the performances are all well-etched — notably Ramey’s charismatic provocateur of an Earl. (Deidre Staples is great as Earl’s youthful sister, Carmen.) The scenes unfold with the rewarding fear that, at any second, occasions could spin irretrievably uncontrolled. But Ijames is much less right here in explosions than in how communities can change and nonetheless maintain collectively — if newcomers with newfound energy honor the values of those that have been there all alongside.

For his half, Ijames stated he’s not satisfied that he’s written his greatest performs but. “I’m hoping,” he stated, “that they’ll be great one day.” They’re fairly good now.

Good Bones, by James Ijames. Directed by Psalmayene 24. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, William Okay. D’Eugenio; sound, Megumi Katayama. About 100 minutes. Through June 18 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW.

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