The 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fat Ham by James Ijames, has finally received its first on-stage production courtesy of The Public Theater and National Black Theatre, its prize derived from its streaming production by the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia in the spring of 2021. Part of a recent trend towards updating Shakespeare to the present time often with all-Black casts, the play turns the tragedy Hamlet on its head making it into a hilarious comedy and developing themes that did not interest Shakespeare all that much.
While this might not be the definitive production, director Saheem Ali, who worked on a similar project with Jocelyn Bioh’s Merry Wives last summer in Central Park, keeps the comedy and the laughs percolating at a steady pace in this long one-act play. His ensemble cast of relatively unfamiliar Black actors is entirely in tune with his and the author’s concept, an ensemble acting their roles as if they have been a family for a long time.
At times Fat Ham is like a series of Saturday Night Live sketches, at others a profound modern look at themes from the original Hamlet. In any case, Ijames has lifted the character relationships and the premise in this comic riff on the old play and then gone about writing his own. Set in a suburban North Carolina backyard, a family is gathering to celebrate the wedding of Tedra (shades of Shakespeare’s Gertrude) to her late husband’s brother Rev (Claudius) with a barbeque with food from the family’s restaurant. Pap (Old Hamlet) has only been dead a week (though stabbed to death in prison where we do not know how long he has been there) so it might seem a bit too soon to both her son Juicy (young Hamlet) and his cousin Tio (Horatio) for a remarriage. When the ghost of Pap (dressed entirely in white but covered by a red and white checked tablecloth) appears first to Tio and then Juicy, its message is to avenge his death by his uncle who arranged for it in prison.
But this is not Hamlet nor is it meant to be. The differences are as revealing as the similarities. Juicy is a large Black queer youth, with a philosophical bent, described as soft, and hating both his abusive father and his abusive uncle, now his step-father. He is indecisive and questioning of his identity. He is a figure of fun to his family, his studying human resources online at the University of Phoenix a joke to them. However, just like Hamlet, he cannot go back to college as here Tedra and Rev have spent his college fund. Among the other guests at the barbeque are Opal (Ophelia), one of his few best friends, and her brother Larry (Laertes), a Marine who seems out of place in his career which seems to have been chosen for him by his mother Rabby (Polonius), a judgmental church lady who bosses her children around. Neighbors and friends of Tedra, they have been invited to the wedding celebration after the ceremony at city hall.
While we arrive knowing the original plot, Ijames keeps the play moving with characters putting up decorations, preparations for the barbeque, the meal itself, charades (instead of a play within a play), karaoke, revelations, and physical fights. He also gives Juicy several of Hamlet’s soliloquies declaimed on a mike as he breaks the fourth wall as he has said he was apt to. There are also new uses for some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. “There’s the rub” now refers to the rub for seasoning the pork, as well as insults to the Bard himself: Tedra chides Juicy with, “If you bring up that dead old white man one mo time. Don’t nobody wanna talk about his ass. You act like he got all the answers. You look crazy out here quoting Shakespeare and shit.” When Juicy reminds his mother that “The king, my queen, is dead,” she responds with “You watch too much PBS.” And both Opal and Larry have secrets that they are both hiding from their censorious mother. While the dramatic part of the play has no real ending, the staging of the final scene is a coup de théâtre that should bring audience members to their feet.
Whether or not you find the play as funny as we are expected to take it, the cast is superb. Marcel Spears’ Juicy holds the play together with his acerbic and tart tongue and philosophical pronouncements. Nikki Crawford brings down the house when as Tedra on karaoke she performs an eroticized version of Crystal Waters” “100% Pure Love.” Billy Eugene Jones aces the violent parts of both Rev and Pap. Adrianna Mitchell is mischievous as Opal who though a friend of Juicy is definitely not interested in being his girlfriend. Calvin Leon Smith’s Larry is another uptight young man who is questioning his identity, though as a Marine he should have found it already. As the Horatio confidant to Juicy, Chris Herbie Holland’s Tio is a stoner who gives a remarkable monologue about virtual reality. Benja Kay Thomas is an out and out comic character as Rabby who is both a traditional conservative and a fun-loving party girl.
Maruti Evans’ unit set is everything you would want for this play: an Astroturf lawn around a realistic patio while the house is a huge photographic blow-up of a ranch-style home whose sliding doors and windows reveal interior rooms. The lighting by Stacey Derosier has all kinds of surprises including a sensational final scene created with colored lights. Dominique Fawn Hill’s costumes are a show in themselves, exactly right for each character. There is nothing much wrong with Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design, except that some of the Southern accents are difficult for us Northerners to decipher. Darrell Grand Moultrie is responsible for the truly outrageous and show-stopping choreography.
James Ijames’ Fat Ham (all puns intended) is the latest and most successful modern riff on the Bard turning Hamlet into an expression of the Black experience while at the same time having much fun at Hamlet’s expense. As one of the few comedies to ever win the Pulitzer Prize, we should be hearing more soon from this talented playwright whose Kill Move Paradise in 2017 appears to be his only other New York credit, also directed by Saheem Ali. Already an associate artistic director/resident director with The Public Theater, Ali has previously worked wonders with Merry Wives, Nollywood Dreams, Shipwreck, Fires in the Mirror, The Rolling Stone, Passage, and Fireflies, among others at various theaters around town. As usual his casting choices are perfect to the nth degree.
Fat Ham (extended through July 31, 2022)
A co-production of The Public Theater and National Black Theatre
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission