Ian James has crafted words and music for some of the most well-known figures in entertainment—Patti LaBelle, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah, Elmo. If that last name seems a bit random, it shouldn’t—James was a writer for Sesame Street for 10 years, creating dialogue and lyrics for some of the most recognizable faces in children’s TV. The Westbury High School alum is now continuing his crusade on educating the public on important social issues, using engaging plays and videos to do it.
James, a seven-time Emmy Award winning writer, has not only written for Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, Scholastic Productions and Warner Cable, but has also had two film scripts optioned and for the past 30 years has been writing, directing and producing plays at La MaMa ETC in New York City, where he also runs the Poetry Electric Series. His theatre projects, penned under the moniker William Electric Black, have been seen in New York City, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and his rèsume also includes teaching screenwriting, playwriting and TV script writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
It’s been a fun and exciting career, that James said had its origins at Westbury High School.
“Growing up in Westbury has really helped me on the path I’m on,” James said. “They were very supportive. The community has a lot of good memories for me.”
James notes Westbury High School as the birthplace of his artistic journey, crediting music teacher Charlie Russell for “giving him the bug” to get involved with school musicals, such as The Music Man and Oklahoma. In addition to participating in the chorus (under the direction of Jan Wilgenkamp), James also has fond memories of doing traditional musicals at the Nassau Community College’s Summerstock program, where he performed with fellow student, Billy Crystal.
Once he graduated in 1970, James enrolled at Bowdoin College in Maine as an economics major. But that didn’t last long.
“I had this theater bug,” he said. “I came back and told my parents I wanted to go into theater.”
He pursued his dream at The College at Brockport, receiving a degree in theater, before going on to get his graduate degree at Southern Illinois University for playwriting.
Post-graduation life found James teaching, doing plays in the East Village and writing, as well as marrying Lucille Lebovitz, a fellow 1970 Westbury High School alum (the two never dated in high school, and reconnected after their college careers). While living in the Upper West Side, he ran into a friend who mentioned that Sesame Street was looking for writers.
James was hired for the job, and started writing small scripts, before getting moved into writing longer ones and eventually coming up with songs for characters as well.
“It’s just an amazing place,” James said of his time at Sesame Street. “It was really for the child’s world and the educational content is so unique in teaching kids. It was a great environment.”
His time at Sesame Street, as well as previous work as a substitute teacher at Westbury High School, left an indelible impact on him, and after a 10-year run, he left Sesame Street to form his own company.
Through the Electric Black Experience, James now produces educational resources, including videos and plays, that raise awareness on health and social issues. Among those projects are hip hop public health cartoons aimed at combating childhood obesity, and animated videos on stroke prevention and prescription drug awareness.
Another cause James feels strongly about is the prevention of gun violence, a passion that comes through in his latest series of plays entitled Gunplays. The series of five plays addresses inner city violence and guns and the fifth installment, Subway Story (A Shooting) opens Feb. 22 at The Theater For The New City in Manhattan. After the shows, James holds talk-backs, where audience members can discuss the prevalence of gun violence and how to prevent it.
“Young people dying breaks my heart,” James said. “The stage is a place I’m really familiar with, so that’s why I decided to use the stage to raise awareness.”
James, the son of an accountant-turned minister and caretaker/factory worker, said he grew up in a household full of love, and that he hopes his work can help make a difference in the lives of young children.
“It’s a calling,” James said. “If I can do something to save some kids, there’s nothing greater. I think everyone should be trying to do something for the young kids, we owe it to them to make it a better world.”
James returns to his hometown this Friday, Aug. 18, to host the Westbury Short Film Festival. The free festival, run by another Westbury High School alum, Doug LeClaire, brings eight award-winning short films to the Piazza Ernestro Strada at 8:30 p.m., after a performance by the Out of the Box Big Band at 7:15 p.m.
“There are great memories,” said James of returning to Westbury. “Especially of my family, my two brothers Carlos and Kevin, my great friend Robert Troiano. We had a great group of friends that included Robert, Paul Napper, Claude Dumpson, Edward Gaston and Gary Butler. It was an amazing place to grow up. It was truly a melting pot. We all looked out for each other, believed in each other, cared for each other.”