Pulitzer-Winning Playwright Visits Campus to Discuss 'Medea' Collaboration
A recent campus visit from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Ijames kicked off a new creative collaboration that will culminate next spring in the staging of a play adapted from Euripides’ Medea.
The project, sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies and titled Greek Drama / Black Lives, is designed to restore and fortify the relationship between Bryn Mawr College and Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). The ACLS grant also includes programming with the E.M. Stanton School in South Philadelphia, where Bryn Mawr and Haverford theater students will work with seventh and eighth graders.
For the Bryn Mawr/CCP collaboration, Ijames, an associate professor of theatre at Villanova University, is adapting the Greek tragedy to lift up questions of race and familial conflict. Last spring, Ijames made headlines when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Fat Ham, which transposes Hamlet to a family barbecue in the American South. Fat Ham, it was recently announced, will open on Broadway in the spring.
“James has been the most amazing person to work with since he joined this project,” said Catherine Conybeare, professor of Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies at Bryn Mawr, as she introduced Ijames to a packed auditorium in Carpenter Library on December 2. “We feel unbelievably lucky that he came on board at this exciting moment.”
Conybeare, together with Catharine Slusar, associate professor of theater, is heading up Greek Drama / Black Lives at Bryn Mawr. Associated with the project is a course for the spring semester entitled Adapting Myths to Play, in which honors college and theater students from CCP will make up half the class. Students from both institutions will participate in the spring performance in acting as well as technical roles.
At the December 2 event, part of Bryn Mawr’s Classics Colloquium series, Ijames sat down with Haverford College assistant professor of classics Ava Shirazi to discuss his adaptation of the play, which is currently in draft form. Ijames said he re-envisioned the story—in which Medea, abandoned by her husband, Jason, seeks revenge—largely through the eyes of their teenage children. “I made them a little older than in the original,” he said, “because I knew I was writing for college age actors, and I also wanted them to have a little bit more agency.”
Ijames looked to popular culture for inspiration on how the implosion of a celebrity couple might affect their children. In particular, he said, “a very famous rapper and his somewhat famous wife, because that relationship was just sort of fascinating to me.” For the character of Medea, he was inspired by Norma Desmond, the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard, and Porsha Williams from Real Housewives of Atlanta. “You put those two together and you have a really specific energy,” said Ijames.
In fact, reflected Ijames, the mini tragedies and moments of catharsis offered by Housewives and played out on TikTok and other social media offer a modern version of “that thing that Antigone did for the Greeks.”
When pondering how to end his adaptation of the play, Ijames noted that he faced his usual conundrum. “Is the happy ending the thing that people need to make it through their day, or is the tragedy the thing they need to see—the fall of the great person—in order to know something about themselves?”
Rehearsals and workshops will take place over the next few months, with performances of IJames’s Medea scheduled to take place at Bryn Mawr College April 13-16 and at Community College of Philadelphia April 20-22.