Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 207
Hamlet has been adapted, retold, and reinvented countless ways. But you’ve never seen a version of Hamlet quite like James Ijames’s Fat Ham, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is now playing on Broadway. In Fat Ham, Ijames takes the outline of Hamlet and transposes it to the present day American South. Instead of “funeral baked meats,” Fat Ham serves up barbecue—expertly cooked by Rev, the Claudius character. The queer, Black Hamlet character is named Juicy. He isn’t on break from Wittenberg; he’s taking an online degree in human resources. After being visited by his father’s ghost, Juicy believes that his uncle murdered his father in order to marry his mother. And, just like Hamlet, Juicy has to decide what to do about it. But the way Ijames transforms Shakespeare’s premise makes Fat Ham into much more than a parody or an adaptation. James Ijames is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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James Ijames is the co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia and the author of the acclaimed plays Kill Move Paradise, TJ Loves Sally 4Ever, and The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 11, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Haley Paskalides in Manhattan and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Hamlet has been adapted, retold, and reinvented countless ways. But you’ve never seen a version of Hamlet quite like James Ijames’s Fat Ham.
WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
James Ijames is the co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, and the author of the acclaimed plays Kill Move Paradise, TJ Loves Sally 4Ever, and The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.
In his most recent play, Fat Ham, Ijames takes the outline of Hamlet and transposes it to the present day American South. Instead of funeral baked meats, Fat Ham serves up barbecue—expertly cooked by Rev, the Claudius character. The queer, Black Hamlet character is named Juicy. And he isn’t on break from Wittenberg; he’s taking an online degree in human resources.
While Fat Ham is full of jokes and Easter eggs for Shakespeare fans, Ijames also manages to take in the full seriousness of Hamlet’s quandary. After being visited by his father’s ghost, Juicy believes that his uncle murdered his father in order to marry his mother. And, just like Hamlet, Juicy has to decide what to do about it. But the way Ijames transforms Shakespeare’s premise makes Fat Ham into much more than a parody or an adaptation.
The play was recognized in 2022 with the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. And now, after playing at the Public Theater in New York, it’s on Broadway.
Here’s James Ijames, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: You know, we talked to so many artists who adapt Shakespeare for film or stage or opera or whatever. And almost all of them, at some point, say that they have to get over the Shakespeare with a capital S burden hanging over them. Was that any part of your experience too with Fat Ham?
JAMES IJAMES: I think like at the very, very, very beginning. Like, the moment that I kind of zeroed in on Hamlet as—because I’d been thinking about a couple of different Shakespeare plays. When I zeroed in on Hamlet, I was like, “Hmm, that’s a big swing, friend.” Like, that’s…
BOGAEV: Shooting for the moon, there.
IJAMES: You know. But then, I feel like, “Oh—”
BOGAEV: Wait, you were thinking about other Shakespeare plays to adapt?
IJAMES: Hmm. Yeah.
BOGAEV: That was the origin of this.
IJAMES: Yeah, there were a few that I was curious about and I… but Hamlet was always in my mind. I did, like, an abbreviated production of it in college and it just stuck with me. I knew that that’s the one I wanted to do, but I was like, “It’s big. It’s like a big swing,” as I said. I was sort of tooling around with a couple of other ones because I was afraid to really go there.
BOGAEV: Oh, so it’s Shakespeare with an S and Hamlet with an H.
BOGAEV: The big one.
IJAMES: It’s both. It was both. And because, you know, I… I’m going to get in trouble on a Shakespeare podcast…there’s some Shakespeare plays that could stand a little revision and work on them. Like, they’re not all great.
BOGAEV: Oh, no kidding. Go ahead, let loose.
IJAMES: Like, I think Shakespeare, just like every playwright, has plays that are superlative and some that are like, “Oh, oh, great, we have this too.”
BOGAEV: Right, right, right. The “sorry sisters.” I want to reel back for a second because you did do this production in college, right?
IJAMES: Mm-hmm. It was a student-directed, like, mercilessly-cut version of Hamlet that I did in an undergraduate before I was even a theater major.
BOGAEV: Oh, who were you in it? Hamlet?
IJAMES: I was Hamlet. And I just loved it. I, you know, I thought he was an interesting character. I wasn’t a very—like, I’m not Hamlet, I’m Horatio, as an actor. I’m by far, more aligned with Horatio than I am with Hamlet. So I sort of staggered my way through that.
But the characters were always really interesting to me: the family dynamic. It’s a family drama at its core. You know, I was telling someone that I like Hamlet because it’s a primordial story. At its core, it’s Cain and Abel. A brother kills his brother, and it’s not good. Then the generations that come after suffer as a result of it.
I like that story, because you pretty much can walk into any culture and you find that kind of story. It just felt like a story that I wanted to play with. I liked the characters and how they interacted with each other.
And, some of the lessons that the play offers, like some of the stuff that Polonius says to the kids in that scene where he was talking Ophelia and Laertes, I was like, “Hmm, I want to rethink what a person would say to their kids in this moment and how they would respond.” I started to dream about how my version of these characters would react to the, you know, given circumstances of Hamlet.
So, the ghost shows up to, you know—in my play, his name is Juicy—shows up to Juicy. Does Juicy respond the way that Hamlet does or does he just respond in a distinctly different way? Then, in my play. he’s a little confused about it for a while and then ultimately decides to do something a little different.
BOGAEV: It sounds like you were going through a lot of “what ifs.” What if Hamlet was just the scene around the banquet table and they never leave that table?
IJAMES: That is exactly what I thought. What I was like, can you capture all of the play in that big scene where, ”Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death, the memory be green”—That scene when we meet everybody for the first time, you know?
If you could just keep everybody in that room and, “Let’s run the events and see if we want to keep doing this or not,” you know? And that’s kind of how Fat Ham developed a little bit.
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s fantastic. That’s where the food comes in.
IJAMES: Oh yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to… you know, at one point the family were pig farmers, and that I wanted to bring it a little bit closer to, like, foodways, so I made them, you know, people who work in barbecue and own a barbecue restaurant.
Because both of those are very sort of violent, visceral spaces. Like, you’re butchering meat or you’re killing pigs. And you know, pigs are sort of—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a pig farm, but it… you know, it’s intense. It’s an intense smell.
BOGAEV: Oh, oh. No kidding. Yeah. And really any farmer is conversant with death.
IJAMES: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I knew that I wanted it to be a world that moved pretty beautifully inside and out of brutality, violence, so that I could have this sort of conversation about how cycles of violence and trauma move through families. How we can stay inside of—like, the culture that the family deals within their occupation and their vocation, seeps into who they are.
And Juicy is different. How does he want to negotiate how he fits into that family? And I think Hamlet is similar in that way. Hamlet is also a bit of an outsider in that family. He just wants to go back to Wittenberg, like, he just wants to go back to school.
BOGAEV: Right. “Please.”
IJAMES: And be normal. And, like, there’s this thing that is in his way.
That felt really rich for me, for a character who’s queer growing up in the South, coming of age in the South, and ultimately becoming an adult in the South.
BOGAEV: It is interesting what you choose to keep and what you left out in the adaptation. Maybe we’ll start with some of the things that you kept in. First, you kept in the ghost and you talked about that a little bit. You know, how would someone in real life react to—in modern life—react to a ghost?
Then you have Pap, the father, who’s played by Billy Eugene Jones. And he sounds pretty unlikeable and violent. He died in prison after murdering someone with bad breath. That’s what we learned about him at the beginning of the play.
IJAMES: That’s correct. That is correct.
BOGAEV: What was your thinking about the ghost and about Pap?
IJAMES: You know, I wanted to set up that he was this intensely unlikeable, violent, awful person, you know? I wanted him to… the extremity of someone being so offended by bad breath that they would murder someone. That’s the guy, that is the level of—that tells you a lot about what that house was like, you know, what the parenting in that family was like. It really, I felt like, what set up that Juicy grew up in a very, very intense and awful way. So, that’s where that came from. Then, you know, when I started writing my Claudius character, Rev, I was mostly like, he’s essentially the same person, but more charming.
BOGAEV: Right. And played by the same person.
IJAMES: And played by the same actor, yeah.
BOGAEV: So, yeah, you’ve got the murderous uncle, and then you have two mothers in the play: Tedra, the Gertrude character, and Rabby, who takes the place of Polonius. Which is interesting because Hamlet has a lot about fatherhood, but not a lot about mothers.
IJAMES: He doesn’t have a lot about mothers. I think that was one of the places where it’s like, “Oh, I can make this uniquely mine.” Because it is so much more about matrilineal power than it is about fathers. The father figures are either absent, or deceased, or are kind of messy father figures.
So, I really wanted to focus on the mothers, because I just think that’s a different kind of parenting. But then as I was working on it, I was like, “No, Rabby is also upholding some patriarchal ideas about what her kids should be and what they should be doing.”
BOGAEV: They should be straight with a straight job.
IJAMES: Yeah. Whereas Tedra, you know, and all of her messiness is a lot more, sort of, flexible about what she thinks Juicy should or shouldn’t do. In large part she doesn’t care because she’s mostly concerned about herself.
BOGAEV: Narcissist. Yeah. And then you have Juicy. You’ve written him as a queer, underachieving sort of Hamlet. He’s pursuing an online degree in human resources, which many characters get a lot of comedic play out of, give him grief for that.
Juicy’s gay and so is Opal, who’s kind of the Ophelia character, as well as her brother Larry, the stand in for Laertes. How intentional was it while you were writing that almost all the younger characters would be queer?
IJAMES: At first it was just Juicy, and then the more I worked on it, the more they kept saying to me, “We are too.” Like, I don’t… it’s so weird for me to say that a character told me something about themselves, but sometimes they do.
There’s just something about how they’re rolling out and how they’re interacting with the other characters that I just realize that I’m writing a character who’s gay or queer, and so they just kept revealing that to me.
Then like, honestly if you count Tio in the mix, who I think kind of is somewhere, you know, pansexual, probably.
BOGAEV: And Tio is the Horatio character.
IJAMES: —Is the Horatio character. Like on some level he could probably, you know, fall in love with a lamp post.
BOGAEV: Well, he’s just a real stoner, we should say, and he brings down the house with this long speech towards the end of the play about a hallucination he has, and anthropomorphic gingerbread man figures in this hallucination and goes down on him and hilarity ensues. Maybe you could walk this one back for us too? Was it always a gingerbread man, not a Poppin’ Fresh doughboy?
IJAMES: No, that’s great. No, it was always a gingerbread man because the video game he describes in the speech is a video game that I had, and while I was working on this play, I just was playing it a ton and it just found its way into the script.
BOGAEV: Well, I love it. It’s really fun when you break the fourth wall, too, with different characters who react to Juicy’s monologues. And they come out, they react to them by asking the audience or asking him, “What’d you tell them?” And then they turn on the audience. Tedra, Juicy’s mother, does that.
IJAMES: Yeah. I have this idea that I want characters to be able to step out of the story and comment on what is happening to them, as the characters. Not as the actors, but the character can step outside of story and say…
BOGAEV: And why did you want that meta moment?
IJAMES: I don’t know. I felt like I hadn’t seen exactly that. And sometimes I do wonder like, “What are you thinking about a character?” Like, “What’s going on?” So, I just kept playing with it until I sort of found a version of it in this play that seems it’s the right balance. I’m still convinced that I can write a play where it happens the entire play and it’ll be interesting.
BOGAEV: Well, there’s another breaking of the fourth wall when Juicy does “The play’s the thing” monologue. And Marcel Spears, he plays Juicy, just delivers that beautifully
IJAMES: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that was one of the first things that I knew from Hamlet that I wanted to just, you know, swipe whole hog. Pun intended.
IJAMES: You can’t get any better than that. I wasn’t going to write a better version of, “This is what we’re about to do. We’re going to put on an act to make someone confess that they’re a murderer.”
If I would’ve written it that boldly, it would’ve been bad. But to take the Shakespeare and put it in conversation with what I was doing, and also, then to reinvent what that speech was actually laying out: it’s not a play, it’s a game of charades, which is a kind of like a play in a way.
So, I don’t know, it was… Paula Vogel shared this idea with me—or, not just with me, but with a group of people—in a bootcamp that I was in of hers. Where she said, “You make the familiar strange, you make the strange familiar.” And then that’s where the great art lives, is when you can make something that people think they understand completely, look completely new and fresh. And something that people perceive to be completely new and fresh, feel comfortable, warm, and familiar.
BOGAEV: Hmm. Is that why then you made that decision to directly quote some Shakespeare? Because that is always the question with an adaptation. Are you going to have direct quotations, or are you going to just have the model, or are you going to rewrite them?
IJAMES: Yeah, I initially set out to rewrite the big ones. I was going to, “O that this too, too sullied flesh.” “To be, or not to be.” “O, what a rogue and peasant slave.” I was going to do all of them.
BOGAEV: Whoa, ambitious.
IJAMES: And very quickly, I was like, “I’m not doing that.”
BOGAEV: Right, and you don’t even have, “To be or not to be,” in this play.
IJAMES: No. I mean, like, there’s a speech where he talks about, you know, wanting to drown himself in one of the ponds near his house. That’s the closest we get to, “To be or not to be.” I was just like… that’s like adapting Romeo and Juliet and the one thing you keep is, “But, soft! What light through…” It’s the speech that everybody knows.
BOGAEV: Right, they’re holding their breath until it comes, as they say.
IJAMES: Yeah, they’re waiting for that. So, if you just don’t give people, you avoid any sort of, like, “Well, it should have done this.” And, fundamentally this speech is doing that. I really avoided that by, one, in some cases, putting the speeches in places where they don’t belong at all. Like, “What a piece of work is a man”: It’s not really about romance at all, it’s not really about sex, and yet it comes on the heels of this scene in Fat Ham that is all about that. Suddenly, that language takes on—and I haven’t changed any of the language there—but it all takes on a different meaning because of the context that I’ve placed it.
Which is kind of like, you know what you do when you know an artist samples a piece of music. They’re taking it out of its original context and putting into something utterly new to make something new.
BOGAEV: Yeah, the mashup really does do that, “Make these strange, familiar,” thing. You do get some Shakespeare digs in. Tedra says, “You quote that dead ass white man one more time. Don’t nobody want to hear about his ass,” which I could appreciate. That I’m sure gets a laugh.
Were you thinking about Shakespeare fans in the audience? And are you the kind of playgoer who would get a nerdy kick out of the Shakespeare easter eggs?
IJAMES: Yes, I would. I was thinking about folks that know Shakespeare really well, mostly because I was afraid of them. You know, a little like, “Oh, how are they going to be upset, about how I’m messing with this story?”
The folks that are really into Shakespeare are like… they dig the way that the play, you know, doesn’t treat him with a great deal of holiness, but, like, so much love. I love Shakespeare. Not because I was told I was supposed to— and in a lot of cases I was sort of, you know, in my acting training, I felt a little discouraged from trying to do it. Yet I still had a great appreciation for, you know, how he writes almost in sound, as opposed to language. Sometimes you listen to those speeches and it’s so musical, it’s so metered. It just takes on a different quality.
I, you know, in a way, I want to think about rhythm when I’m writing. I want to think about the shape of sound when I’m writing something, and not just the idea I’m trying to get across. But what do the sounds being made to form that idea do to a person when they hear it?
And Shakespeare does that. You know, when you hear a great performer do those great speeches in any of the plays, you’re listening to the greatest violinist play the greatest piece of violin music, you know? It is truly magic.
So, I wanted to play with Shakespeare, if that makes sense. When I say, “play with Shakespeare,” I mean in the sense of like, “Do you want to go outside and play?” Like that. I wanted to, you know, see if it would be fun to put something that I wrote right next to something that he wrote and that those things would flow one into the other. And they do.
BOGAEV: They do. And you really do feel the love for Shakespeare in the play, even though there are huge differences. I don’t think I’m giving away a spoiler, since it’s in all the reviews, but the characters, for instance, they don’t all die at the end. You get to the end, and I’m so glad that they don’t. Maybe you could tell me about that choice?
IJAMES: I know I didn’t want everyone to die. I don’t know why or where that came from.
BOGAEV: Well, I mean, you’re dealing with this theme of cycles of violence in a family.
IJAMES: Yeah, I wanted them to change. I wanted them to do something different. I wanted them to not feel like they were held by the literature, and in their case, their personal cases, held by their history, their family history. Also, you know, I had made a commitment at some point—I don’t know when this happened—to happy endings.
BOGAEV: In all your plays?
IJAMES: Pretty much, yeah. There are plays that end in complex, strange ways, but there are never plays that end without hope, at the very least. And I don’t know where I came to that. I never do it in a way that feels Pollyanna-ish, as if I’m assuming, you know, you wave a wand and everything is okay. But I kind of made it a mission of mine to, at the very least, strive to end everything I had written not in devastation, but in sort of a striving for paradise.
BOGAEV: Was this a decision for you or for your audience?
IJAMES: I think for me, because I was seeing so many… I felt a lot of the art I was consuming that was contemporary was really nihilistic. And, while I am very much aware of the truth of that—and my own, like, climate anxiety is always through the roof, and my Spidey-sense about the political climate and just the way the world is moving is very unnerving for me. So, I’m curious about writing things that don’t obscure pain and don’t obscure the possibility of death, the possibility of pain, the possibility of hurt or betrayal… but that at the end we get to some sort of place where the audience can see how the world could get better or they could see how the situation could get better.
You know, that that final line of—the real, final line of Fat Ham is, “Well, I hope you don’t mind if we carry.” And the thing that I know just to be completely true is that the worst thing can happen to you and you can overcome it. Your nightmare can come true and you can figure out how to heal from that.
So, when I make something that I want to put into the world, my hope is that it’s offering people a little corner of space where they can imagine with a group of other people what their paradise might look like.
BOGAEV: I want to ask you how you started writing plays. I read that your grandmother made you do it when you were 13.
IJAMES: She’s going to really give me a mouthful when I see her. She didn’t make me do it. It’s a slightly better story than what actually happened, which was, she strongly encouraged me to write down how I was feeling about things, because I was a kid with a lot of feelings.
BOGAEV: Okay. You’re growing up queer in, where? North Carolina?
IJAMES: Yeah. And not really aware of that either. Just sort of, you know, being like, “Hm. I think I’m a little different, but I don’t know why?” You know, there was just enough that was sort of different or strange about me that I could tell that my path was going to be a little different. I think maybe on some level my mom and my grandmother and my whole family could kind of see that.
My mother is an educator, so she just loved the idea of me being interested in, like, writing stuff. The first play I wrote was when I was about 14, 15 years old for my home church and my grandmother directed it for Christmas.
BOGAEV: Okay, so that’s how you got to play writing. I was going to ask if you were writing plays because you grew up in front of a TV, like I did.
IJAMES: Probably. I was a kid that watched everything on TV. So, like, I watched China Beach when it aired, weekly, which is just bizarre because nobody watched that show.
BOGAEV: With good reason.
IJAMES: I don’t even think it lasted a season. Yeah, I watched a ton of TV, a ton of… it’s sort of also the heyday of, like, Lifetime original movies, so I watched a lot of that stuff. I think that’s another reason why I have an affinity for, like, happy endings and fairytale closure.
I’m less interested in things being summed up neatly. I’m more interested in leaving the audience with a sense of possibility and purpose that, you know, they can make things different.
But, yeah, even then, watching all that TV, I don’t think it dawned on me that someone sat somewhere and wrote it, until I was much older.
BOGAEV: Right. You studied acting, as you say, and worked as an actor before you became a professional playwright.
IJAMES: I’d say most of my career was as an actor.
BOGAEV: Yeah. How do you think that experience influences the way you write?
IJAMES: I think my approach to character is similar to my approach to character was when I was acting. I think I’m—as an actor and a writer—in conversation with actors in a very distinct way. Actors often tell me that they feel like I trust them. And I do, because I think actors are really, really smart about text.
There are times where I’ve been an actor and I’m like, “Wow, this is written within an inch of its life, and I didn’t need all of that.” I’m actually really thoughtful about these things.
There are times where I’m like, “I don’t have enough to do this thing that this playwright wants me to do.” Like, I’m often… whenever I read in a script, “She weeps,” I’m like, “You’ve given her nothing to get to weeping. And yet you’re asking her to do a thing that’s impossible with the language you’ve given.”
That made me realize that you have to write the language in such a way that it elicits and inspires the emotion and the actor. As opposed to telling them, “This is the emotion I want you to feel at this moment.”
That’s from my own experience of reading a script as an actor and, you know, seeing a stage direction for an emotional choice the moment doesn’t even support, let alone the text that I’ve been given to speak. So, that was just a thing that I, pretty early on as a writer, focused on.
Was like, “How can I, like, whisper to all of the different people who are going to pick up this play one day to make it?” How do I talk to an actor with how I’m writing the dialogue and the action? How do I talk to the designers about what I, you know, I’m curious about the world looking like? How do I talk to the director about what the shape of everything should be?
I think I’d gotten pretty good about leaving room for people to be really creative with what the world can look like, and feel like, and what the people can be. While also being in this rigorous conversation with my own ideas with these collaborators, some of whom… like, there’re people who have done Kill Move Paradise and I’ve never met them, you know? And I’ve never seen their production of it, it just exists. It existed in the world for the time that it was happening. But I feel like I have been in conversation with those people, even though I wasn’t there.
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s so exciting.
You’ve adapted stories of historical characters, Martha Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Are there more historic topics or characters or revisionist histories that you want to explore more?
IJAMES: Yeah, there’s definitely more Shakespeare. I’m working on an Othello that I won’t talk too much about.
IJAMES: Because it’s super early.
I’ve been working on a play that’s based on this sort of little-known event that happened in 1963 where Robert Kennedy invited James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry, and Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte, all of these Black artist and scholars in of the era, to his family’s apartment to talk about civil rights. And it went disastrously, famously went horribly. So I’m working on a play that uses that as a jumping off point.
Then I’ve been doing, for the last probably six months, some research on the early AIDS epidemic. Because I want to write a play that’s set during that time, but also set in the present. Which is I think mostly because of living through, you know, a pandemic. It’s made me start thinking about the last time we experienced something where we just didn’t know what was happening.
I was born in 1981, so there hasn’t been a time in my life where it wasn’t a part of my understanding of myself as a gay man. So, I kind of want to explore that moment a little bit. But again, write the play that has a happy ending, but it’s very difficult subject matter. Like, trying to find what that is.
BOGAEV: Well, I could ask you a million questions about all of that, but just sticking to the Shakespeare, I know you can’t talk about your Othello, but, can you say comedy or tragedy?
IJAMES: Psychological thriller.
BOGAEV: Of course, of course it is. Wonderful. I cannot wait. It has just been such a joy to talk with you. Thank you so much.
IJAMES: Of course. Thank you so much.
WITMORE: That was James Ijames talking to Barbara Bogaev. For tickets to Fat Ham, visit fathambroadway.com.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Haley Paskalides in Manhattan and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on your podcast platform of choice.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.