By James Ijames; Directed by Saheem Ali
Produced by No Guarantees, Public Theater Productions, & Rashad V. Chambers
Runs through 6.25.16
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street
by Regina Robbins on 4.24.23
Marcel Spears and Billy Eugene Jones in Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: You'll laugh, cry and maybe even sing along with Juicy and his hot mess of a family in this comedy, based on Shakespearean tragedy but much Blacker, queerer, and shorter.
If you’ve ever seen Hamlet and found yourself wondering why there is no ham in it, your problem is solved. James Ijames’ absurdist comedy Fat Ham puts Shakespeare through a meat grinder, relocating the prince of Denmark and his dysfunctional family to the American South in the present day. For good measure, they’re Black, and they’re having a barbecue. The result is by turns hilarious, trenchant, and poignant. It’s a combination that last year’s Pulitzer committee found irresistible, awarding Ijames the prize for Drama. Downtown audiences also ate it up in its previous incarnation at the Public Theater; consequently, it’s now being served on Broadway.
Instead of a castle, Fat Ham is set in the backyard of the modest house where Juicy (Marcel Spears), a young adult unsure of his place in the world, lives with his mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford) and her new husband Rev (Billy Eugene Jones). In fact, the yard is being set up for a barbecue-cum-wedding reception following their whirlwind engagement and marriage. Juicy isn’t exactly feeling it for a number of reasons: first, because his new stepdad is actually his uncle; second, because Juicy’s real father, Pap (Jones again), just got murdered in prison a week ago. This celebration is destined to be all kinds of awkward, but the stakes are raised a thousandfold when Pap’s ghost appears in a cloud of smoke and commands Juicy to avenge his murder—which he claims was arranged, if not actually committed, by his brother Rev.
The raucous laughter Fat Ham elicits from audiences stems from the irreverence with which Ijames treats his source material, the familiarity (especially for Black spectators) of many of the play’s hot-mess domestic intrigues, and the brilliance of the cast, particularly Benja Kay Thomas as Rabby, the church lady version of Polonius, and Chris Herbie Holland as Tio, the stoner Horatio. Spears’s Juicy is—pardon the pun—delicious, a diffident, sarcastic contrast to the larger-than-life characters swirling around him. He does have an ally in the similarly disaffected Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), moping around in a hoodie and a pair of Chucks, and he might have another in her brother, Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), a soft-spoken Marine back home for a visit. But Juicy doesn’t have time to relax into the comfort of old friendships; he’s too busy grappling with the question of whether he should obey his deceased father, with whom he never really got along anyway, and continue his family’s string of murders. In other words, should he “man up” and embrace violence, or let it go and allow Rev, and the rest of the neighborhood, to continue calling him a “sissy”?
If Fat Ham were merely a comedic update of Hamlet, it still might have been a great show; however, Ijames goes beyond the easy laughs, incorporating anything and everything that tickles his fancy, from sections of Shakespeare’s actual verse to audience interaction to ‘90s pop songs. He seems unbothered by any notion that a play that grapples with the most urgent issues of the day—generational trauma, toxic masculinity, queer shame—is expected to keep a straight face or eschew crowd-pleasing flourishes. Saheem Ali, whose background in directing both Shakespeare and adventurous new work makes him ideally suited for this piece, handles Ijames’ fast-moving text with his usual clarity and delicacy.
Fat Ham has a lot in common with other recent Pulitzer-winning plays, particularly Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview and Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop—both audacious, largely comedic pieces about Black characters struggling with painful legacies and uncertain futures. Truth be told, it suffers somewhat in comparison with these other works, being neither as formally original or as psychologically complex. But on its own terms, Fat Ham is a refreshing, surprising, and emotionally resonant play that manages to reflect Black America’s reality without amplifying its pain. Come through and get you some of this barbecue.
(Fat Ham plays at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, through June 25, 2023. The running time is 95 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 7; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $69-$179 and are available at fathambroadway.com; discounted rush tickets are available at todaytix.com.)
Fat Ham is by James Ijames. Directed by Saheem Ali. Set Design by Maruti Evans. Costume Design by Dominique Fawn Hill. Lighting Design by Brad King. Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Illusions Design by Skylar Fox. Hair & Wig Design by Earon Chew Nealy. Choreography by Darrel Grand Moultrie Fight Director is Lisa Kopitsky. Production Stage Manager is Kamra A. Jacobs. Stage Manager is Fatimah Amill.
The cast is Nikki Crawford, Chris Herbie Holland, Billy Eugene Jones, Adrianna Mitchell, Calvin Leon Smith, Marcel Spears, and Benja Kay Thomas.