Philadelphia writers Simone White and James Ijames are among 10 writers “of exceptional promise” named Wednesday night as recipients of the prestigious national $50,000 Whiting Award. The prize is given each year by the Whiting Foundation of Brooklyn to promising writers in diverse literary genres, including poetry, fiction, and drama.
White, 44, is as accomplished as a poet can be. She’s Connecticut-born and Philly-raised, and grew up in Mount Airy; she's the daughter of lawyer Ron White, thus, the sister of rappers Santigold and Ali White. She left Philadelphia in 2004 and is now in Brooklyn, working two jobs (one of which is as program director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church) and raising her 2½-year-old son.
Of the award, she said, “There’s nothing like this. I didn’t know it was coming. there’s absolutely nothing more surprising than that sort of surprise gift. It means my life will be not as difficult for a while, and that means a tremendous amount.”
The poet’s life is not for the faint of heart. “I find time to write by stealing time from my other activities," she said. “I write on the subway, I write at my desk at work when I’m supposed to be working, I write when I should be asleep.”
White was selected in 2013 as a new American poet by the Poetry Society of America. That program recognizes poets who have published books. Hers include the full-length House Envy of All the World (2010) and the chapbooks Dolly (2008) and Unrest (2013). Last year, she came out with the full-length collection Of Being Dispersed.
She has a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, an M.F.A. from the New School in New York, and a Ph.D. in English from the CUNY Graduate Center.
Ijames, 36, who won his Whiting Award for drama, is a frequent, commanding presence on stages in Philadelphia. The South Philly resident is not only a professor of theater at Villanova, but also a triple threat on the boards: actor, playwright, and director.
“This award is really amazing,” he said. “I’m always stunned when people are moved by my work and want to support it.”
“The major thing you get from an award like this is time," he said, "and the encouragement to take risks. It says, ‘Yes, you’re doing the right thing, keep pushing.’ ”
A founding member of the Orbiter 3 play-development group, Ijames (pronounced EYE-ums) won an F. Otto Haas Award in 2011 as an emerging Philly artist and is also a winner of three Barrymore Awards (two of them as outstanding supporting actor in a play, in 2011 for Superior Donuts at the Arden Theatre and in 2012 for Angels in America at the Wilma Theater; he also won in 2014 for outstanding direction of a play for The Brothers Size at the Simpatico Theatre Project).
He won a Pew Fellowship in 2015. His growing list of much-praised dramatic works includes WHITE and The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, both of which grew out of Ijames’ participation (2013 and 2015) in PlayPENN play-development workshops. WHITE will have its world premiere at Theatre Horizon, April 27-May 21.