family drama

How the Pulitzer Prize-Winning “Fat Ham” Flips the Script on “Hamlet”

The good news is that James Ijames’ Fat Ham is an embarrassingly gorgeous Black perspective on rejecting harm. It’s also sensationally performed by its multi-talented cast of scene-devourers and given fantastical, seamless direction by Saheem Ali. There is no bad news to report on this recently opened play at the Public Theater, except it’s one of the toughest tickets to get in New York City, despite being extended through July 3.

A co-production between the National Black Theatre and Public Theater, Fat Ham was recently awarded 2022’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has been given much fanfare for “reinventing” Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet. As fun as that sounds, “reinvent” is not quite accurate. As Ijames explains in his program notes, though Hamlet inspired him, this play is not about the sulky Dane.

Fat Ham
The cast of Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus

Yes, it features a sulky, Black, fat, queer man as its main character who, at key points, recites three of Hamlet’s soliloquies, as well as a host of nicknamed characters who riff on their antecedents along with the ghost of a father pushing his son to murder his uncle. But beyond those similarities, this is an entirely new play.

Case in point: Fat Ham is over in 100 minutes, instead of Hamlet’s usual three-and-a-half-hour run time. And no production of the latter has ever reduced me to alternating between trying not to piss my pants from laughing so hard, ball my guts out, stand and shout, or fall out of my chair with delirium.

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If theater is supposed to be a cathartic experience, this play left me feeling everything all at once, everywhere in my body, pretty much the entire time.

Fat Ham begins with no exposition or attempts to ease us into its humor. It’s funny from the get-go, though it takes a full scene for us to decipher the particular cadence of these characters and figure out how they tick ― a brave move on Ijames’ part for resisting the urge to spoon-feed the audience, and additional kudos to Ali for rejecting the impulse to dumb things down. If anything, Ali’s assured direction leads the production to even higher heights than is evident in the script. 

Juicy (Marcel Spears) is setting up decorations in his family’s backyard for his mother Tedra’s (Nikki Crawford) wedding reception alongside his cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), who is watching porn on his phone. Juicy is upset because his mother has just married his father’s brother, Rev (Billy Eugene Jones). Even though his father, a miserable chap named Pap (also played by Jones), was recently killed while serving time in prison.

Fat Ham
Calvin Leon Smith, left, and Billy Eugene Jones in Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus

Soon, Pap’s ghost visits and urges Juicy to seek revenge on Rev, whom he believes ordered his death. Juicy, a nice though morose kid with more sugar in his tush than venom, is not feeling it. But he decides that something has to change after his uncle exerts his toxic and homophobic grip over the household. 

Though Rev delights and keeps Tedra sexed up, he is every bit as abusive as Pap was. While pretending to bond with Juicy, he punches him in the stomach, making it clear that he’s in charge. He also tastelessly reveals that he and his mother used Juicy’s college tuition money to remodel their bathroom. Tedra loves Juicy, but she blames him for egging Rev on and rejects rocking the boat lest she loses her identity of a sexy and bedded wife ― because she’s not built to be alone. 

As she tells Juicy, “Listen baby, I went from my Daddy’s house to my husband’s house. I ain’t never been alone. I need noise. Commotion makes me happy.” That’s true even if she has no idea what she wants beyond a ring on her finger or if she disagrees with her men on how to run things. 

Family friends Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), her daughter Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), and her son Larry (Calvin Leon Smith) arrive to celebrate the nuptial cookout but soon add to the drama. The siblings, both queer, are ruled by their god-fearing mother, who insists upon traditional “decency” even though she has a past of her own.

Fat Ham
Marvel Spears, left, and Adrianna Mitchell in Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus

Meanwhile, Larry is a marine and suffers from the trauma of murdering people in other countries ― even though he knows that he wants to kiss Juicy but can’t bring himself to do so in case someone catches them. Larry dumbs himself down to survive but reveals what lies beneath in an ardent reflection on what he sees in Juicy. 

“I can see the steam rising off you and it makes you look like a little deity,” he murmurs steadily and seductively. “ It makes you feel closer than you actually are. If I were like you…I probably would have saved someone’s life.” He completes this moment by asking Juicy to save him ― the tragedy is that he has everything he needs to save himself but is too bound up by homophobia to see it.

“What your life would be like if you chose pleasure over harm.” — Tio, Fat Ham

The wedding festivities resume with a karaoke party, during which Tedra raps Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love” and spells her love out on Rev’s lap with her hips (fantastic choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie). To Rev’s chagrin, Juicy takes a turn at the mic and casts a spell that transforms the entire party into a horde of zombie-like headbangers through his howling rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

They move on to a game of charades, where Juicy reveals that Rev killed Pap, igniting a forced outing, shocking violence, and a rambling speech from Tio, who had stepped away to grab drinks for the party and then returns to the chaos high. He admits to hallucinating that he was receiving fellatio from a gingerbread man instead of a gingerbread woman, acknowledging that though he is the product of an anti-queer society, it felt nice. Instead of flagellating himself over that, he contemplates “what your life would be like if you chose pleasure over harm.” 

Fat Ham
The cast of Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus

That line reduced the entire audience around me to silence as we embraced words we’d surely heard before but never as elucidated through this revelatory context. Tio is responding to the entire worldview that he, his family, and we, the audience, are currently shackled within ― one that criminalizes the possibility of queerness. By pairing Fat Ham’s insane shenanigans with unexpected nuggets of joy, Ijames allows his many simple truths to resound as if they were the words of some wise god.

Watching these characters drop their all-but-predetermined violent patterns helped me realize that salvation often comes down to deciding to do something else. Maybe we can’t just decide to be happy, but we can walk away from being miserable and choose, instead, to revel in a dance party as these characters ultimately do. Watching Larry return to save himself by dancing across Maruti Evans’ magically transformed set lifted the entire audience to its feet with little regard for how silly we might look to outside observers. If that’s what Ijames and Ali want us to take away from Fat Ham, I am here for the gospel.

Fat Ham plays at the Public Theater through July 3.

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