Fond of figuring out how to execute any role, James Ijames often finds himself realizing how much he and his characters differ.
The 32-year-old performer is reveling in his latest challenge, as he is playing Algernon Moncrieff, a conniving comfort craver in the Mauckingbird Theatre Co.’s treatment of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In pulling off the humorous assignment, he also is continuing to question what inspires human behavior, a task he uses writing to answer, too.
“I’m modest and even-keeled, yet he is another large, buoyant, vertical energy character for me,” the resident of the 900 block of Winton Street said last week of the personality, who covets love to complement his wealth and even uses guile to obtain it. “He’s someone, though, I’ve always wanted to play, so I’ve adapted to take on his flamboyant, ostentatious disposition.”
The Lower Moyamensing dweller learned of the part through Mauckingbird’s artistic director Peter Reynolds and is engaging in his endeavor through Sunday at the Center City-situated Off-Broad Street Theatre. Accustomed to accepting opportunities no matter their difficulty, he knew his turn would offer its share of tests.
“Oscar Wilde is terrifying,” he said of the revered Irish writer. “I had to do dialect work to help to synthesize and present the material, and that’s proven successful so far because audiences have been receptive to our efforts.”
The three-act creation features an abundance of wit, a trademark component of Wilde’s works. The full title dubs it “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” and makes apparent its author had not intended to impart the text with much moral depth, but Ijames has noted its lines reveal a class analysis perhaps more relevant to today’s theatergoers.
“We don’t have an aristocratic order in America, but we can see the characters as leading us to address how we often judge based on what people have or lack,” the thespian said. “Algernon makes many mistakes, but they’re forgiven because he’s from the right kind of people. He’s a rich person who talks with other rich people about being wealthy. I’m definitely not well-off, but I get what Wilde is going for in having us ponder perceptions of societal makeup.”
Ijames has used that awareness to laud Mauckingbird’s handling of gay scribes and their output, the acceptance of which has drastically changed since the late 19th century, when Wilde served a prison sentence for being a homosexual. Also a gay man seeking theatrical distinction, the local entertainer appreciates the dwindling of overtly critical reactions and the enhancing of creative possibilities.
“We live less fluid lives now because people put themselves in boxes,” Ijames said. “I feel I’ve gained a greater sense of my abilities, regardless of my sexuality or anything else, by accepting rather than rejecting what seems complex.”
The introspective individual initiated his probes as a North Carolina youth who acted in church plays. Originally feeling music would bear his career, he shifted his focus and catered to playwrighting and acting urges at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, where he acquired a bachelor’s degree in drama.
“I left there with a wonderful toolbox and set out to use as much of my preparation in challenging roles,” Ijames said of furthering his skills through Temple University’s Master of Fine Arts in acting program.
True to his desire to honor canonical works and promote contemporary pieces, he has proven a consummate hire for such entities as the Arden and Philadelphia theatre companies and The Wilma Theater. He has garnered two Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play Barrymore awards for “Superior Donuts” and “Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches” and received the 2011 F. Otto Haas Award For Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist.
“You learn to act by doing it, and I’ve loved my chances to honor writers for their toils,” the accomplished actor said. “I’ve also had many moments where I’ve connected with the city’s outstanding performers, many who call South Philly home, so that’s been another benefit of gracing stages here.”
Ijames also won acclaim for writing and appearing in Mauckingbird’s ’10 presentation of “The Threshing Floor,” his tribute to fellow African-American wordsmith James Baldwin, one of many influences on his compositions.
“I deliberate on what is enjoyable to say, which then has a role in my acting because of how I try to interpret what’s come before me,” he said. “When it’s out there, I want my writing to be for everyone.”
Through the recently completed “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” through the Chestnut Hill-based PlayPenn New Play Development Festival and ongoing projects, Ijames is looking to find audiences thirsty for his creative juices. He also has fostered that by penning content for the National Constitution Center, for whom he also serves as a Freedom Rising presenter.
“I’ve loved my identity as a dual artist because it’s about evolution,” the wherewithal-rich figure said. “With interpretations of pieces, I want to continue to encourage audiences to see plays as important reminders of our need to imagine. With my work, I’d have to say that, too.”
In addition to playing Algernon, Ijames has spent this year performing in the Kimmel Center’s “Wide Awake: The Civil War Cabaret” and the Arden’s “Endgame.” He will direct “The Brothers Size” for the Simpatico Theatre Project, 850 S. Second St., in October at the Walnut Street Theatre and will team with “Endgame” co-star and Barrymore Award winner Scott Greer, of the 800 block of Federal Street, for the Arden’s spring staging of “Three Sisters.”
“I’m very gung-ho about the projects,” Ijames said. “I’ve met and wrangled with Algernon and can’t wait for more.”
For tickets, visit mauckingbird.org.
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 124.