When it comes to modern adaptations of Shakespeare plays, many theatergoers tend to treat them like a test, mentally annotating plot and character correlations as if their high school English teachers were going to tap them on the shoulders and ask, “Did you catch that one?” If you suffer from this same hang up, then consider James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Fat Ham therapy, not only encouraging its audience to break free from fawning fidelity to the Bard but also, more poignantly, tragic endings. Simply put, for Ijames’ insightfully idiosyncratic take on Hamlet, we’re not in Elsinore anymore, and that’s a good thing.
In Fat Ham the tortured Prince of Denmark is now a Black, gay, and humbly-born young man, living in a bland suburban house (notwithstanding this description, it’s memorably designed by Maruti Evans) located in the Upper South. Nicknamed Juicy (Marcel Spears) for a pleasingly plump figure, he shares similar nightmarish pain with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but, as Juicy’s porn-and-weed-loving friend Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) sagely observes, there’s an even longer patrilineal legacy of inherited trauma burdening Juicy, one whose virulent roots stretch back to slavery. Brilliantly pitched between parody and pathos, appreciating Fat Ham doesn’t require any familiarity with Shakespeare’s longest play, not even the awareness that Horatio (the Shakespearean inspiration for Juicy’s buddy Tio) never smoked cannabis or longed to be an OnlyFans performer. But, as an unstated cost of admission, Ijames does demand both an open heart and mind.
Although there is no Fortinbras-like threat, with its promise of ceaseless retribution, looming in the distance of Fat Ham, other plot parallels still beset Juicy, if not as protractedly. As one might expect, the most alarming is the appearance of his father’s ghost, Pap (Billy Eugene Jones), who pressures Juicy at a backyard barbecue–much less expected–to “avenge” him by killing his treacherous brother Rev (Jones, again, in an example of genius doubling and acting). Not only did Rev get someone to shank Pap in prison–where Juicy’s dad was locked away after slitting a man’s throat for halitosis–he also married Juicy’s mother Gertrude…er, Tedra (Nikki Crawford) post-fratricide and stole the family business.
Needless to say, it’s a lot for Juicy to process, and, although he never explicitly utters the suicidal question “to be, or not to be,” it’s obvious the poor fellow is a bundle of increasingly intrusive thoughts. But, instead of in a somber soliloquy, they come pouring out during Juicy’s soul-baring turn at a karaoke mike that stunningly combines the English rock band Radiohead’s Gen-X hymn to alienation “Creep” with lighting designer Bradley King and choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie’s hypnotically rave-like collaboration. Even though Fat Ham is not a musical, this number, and a contrastingly joyous surprise later, puts to shame most of the shows calling themselves that right now on Broadway.
Director Saheem Ali continues to loosen up the proceedings with lots of stage trickery and gestural asides that give Fat Ham the same sense of winking fun and intimacy it had during a previous run at The Public Theater. The play’s madcap frivolity also extends to Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), Ijames’s much more participatory, forthright, and resilient Ophelia who is always effervescently ready to fight back against toxic male behavior rather than meekly succumb to it. As for packing Opal off to a nunnery, nobody in Fat Ham would dare suggest it unless that person were willing to risk the business end of a metal spatula. But, all of her noble qualities aside, Opal still isn’t completely able to be herself, as she must acquiesce to the fussy gender expectations of her devout mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas) by wearing a dress to the barbecue.
If you’re attempting to guess Rabby’s Shakespearean counterpart, then your brain is, unfortunately, still plagued by analogizing. Also, it’s Polonius, both father to Ophelia and a comic repository of bad advice who Ijames cleverly transforms into a sanctimonious church lady. While the character mostly remains as ridiculous as an ostentatious busybody getting stabbed through a wall tapestry, Rabby’s casual, violence-provoking homophobia is ultimately no joke, setting off a confrontation between her son Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), an emotionally lost Marine, and Juicy that’s succinctly indicative of the harm one generation can pass on to another.
Of course, it’s fair to suspect Larry’s relationship to Juicy might assume the same dramatic shape as the one that fatefully connects Ophelia’s brother Laertes to Hamlet, with Ijames letting events take some inventive version of their original cataclysmic course. But, as should be obvious by now, Ijames isn’t interested in the expected, especially when it holds out no hope for the possibility of forgiveness. As Ijames might optimistically interpret the opening lines of a different Shakespeare play, if “what’s past is prologue,” then human beings have all the brutally hard-earned knowledge necessary to finally treat each other better.
Fat Ham (through July 2, 2023)
The Public Theater and National Black Theatre
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 833-274-8497 or visit http://www.fathambroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission