Pulitzer Prize-Winner James Ijames Premieres New Play at South Philly Theater

theatreImage by Gerd Altmann

PHILADELPHIA, PA — South Philadelphia-based theater company Theatre Exile (1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147) is proud to present the world premiere of Abandon by Philadelphia-based Pulitzer Prize-winner James Ijames. The show was created in partnership with Theatre Exile through their New Play Development Program, Studio X-hibition. Abandon will be the final production of its 2022/23 season and will have 22 performances from April 27 to May 21, 2023. The cast features notable local Philadelphia actors Carlo Campbell, Melanye Finister, Joshua E. Nelson, and Brenson Thomas, with 2021 Pew Fellow Brett Ashley Robinson directing.

Ijames is an award-winning, critically-acclaimed playwright, director, and educator, who was recently awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play Fat Ham. The show drew immense praise for its creative reinvention of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a modern drama. Fat Ham follows Juicy, a queer young man haunted by his father’s ghost demanding revenge on Juicy’s uncle, who married his widowed mom.

Fat Ham received its virtual world premiere at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia in 2021 before debuting in New York for in-person audiences at The Public Theater, co-produced with the National Black Theatre. Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work makes its Broadway debut at American Airlines Theatre in March 2023. The transfer marks Ijames’s and the National Black Theatre’s first production to be presented on Broadway. While its precursor is set to make history on the Broadway stage, audiences can experience Abandon in the powerfully intimate setting of Theatre Exile’s 75-seat black box theater.

In Abandon, Joshua (Nelson) is a young man kicked out of his house one night by his mercurial older brother Chris (Campbell). Cold and desperate for food, he ends up breaking into the home of Luella (Finister), an elderly woman haunted by the ghost of her late son Gabriel (Thomas). Luella catches Joshua in the act but, instead of calling the police, decides to take pity and allows him to spend the night to escape the winter chill outside. With a baseball bat in one hand and a bowl of mac and cheese in the other, Luella soon realizes this young man shares a lot in common with her late son. As the night unfolds, these two lonely souls forge an unlikely bond as their respective pasts are brought to light.

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The characters in Abandon embark on a spiritual and emotional journey, allowing them to reckon with their pasts and break free of their isolation. Ijames’s latest play is sometimes violent, sometimes healing. Abandon conjures a thin veil that separates the worlds of the living and the dead, shame and acceptance.

“I’m excited to premiere Abandon with Theatre Exile,” said Ijames. “This play was inspired by my own recent journey with grief and loneliness. I wanted to explore how they impact a person and how someone can find their way out of that. At the same time, I was also interested in examining how people find family and community when their own families are perhaps not what they want them to be.”

Over the last year, Ijames worked on Abandon through Theatre Exile’s New Play Development Program Studio X-hibition, formally established in 2010 as a series of script-in-hand readings of plays in development by local playwrights. Professional actors are cast to bring their words to life for an audience of their peers and theater fans. The readings are part of a year-long development process and allow playwrights to see their work performed for a live audience and receive feedback from their community. Theatre Exile presented the reading of Abandon during their 2021/22 season.

After writing and directing shows throughout Philadelphia for nearly 20 years, Ijames has become one of the biggest names in the city’s rich theater community. Leading up to Fat Ham, he received numerous prestigious distinctions, including, a Whiting Award in 2017, the Kesselring Prize for Kill Move Paradise in 2019, and a 2020 Steinberg Prize in Drama. Most recently, Ijames received the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust’s 2022 Steinberg Playwright Award in December 2022. Outside of his work as a playwright and director, Ijames also serves as the Co-Artistic Director at The Wilma Theater and is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Villanova University.

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Director Brett Ashley Robinson is another talented and visionary part of the team leading the world premiere presentation of Abandon. This will be her second time directing a Theatre Exile show following her work with the 2021 world premiere of R. Eric Thomas’s play, The Ever Present.

“I love James’ work and how he writes about the South in a way that is truthful and filled with humanity,” said Robinson. “For me, Abandon feels like a dark fairy tale that speaks to the dark pain of loneliness and the gift of connection. It holds so much joy, darkness, forgiveness, and trust in the text. It is a beautiful portrait of grief and the journey of healing.”

Robinson is a Philadelphia-based Barrymore Award-winning devisor, theatremaker, director, and
educator. She invites audiences to reckon with history, examine their beliefs and perspectives, and engage with imaginative Black theater. In 2021, she earned the PEN America Jean Stein Oral History Grant for her original work, Re-Enactment, which incorporated oral histories of people who experienced the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia.

For over 25 years, the South Philadelphia theatre company has remained dedicated to cultivating the future of theater and enhancing the cultural experiences of audiences through the staging of bold productions. Abandon maintains Theatre Exile’s longstanding tradition of producing provocative plays that explore the complexities of the human condition and contain a sense of Philadelphia grit and passion. Tickets for the world premiere of Abandon are on sale now and are expected to sell out.

For the safety and comfort of patrons, Theatre Exile will require audiences and staff to wear masks and show proof of vaccination for most performances.

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Tickets may be purchased here or call 215-218-4022. Prices range from $10-40.

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