The INTO Interview

James Ijames and Calvin Leon Smith Talk Broadway’s Fat Ham and the Value of Being ‘Soft’

· Updated on May 3, 2023

Calvin Leon Smith, left, and James Ijames. Photo by Jeff Eason for INTO

Fat Ham doesn’t merely reinvent Shakespeare’s Hamlet; it reconstructs how we view Blackness, queerness, and masculinity. The bones of Shakespeare’s play are there, but the meat of it all comes from Ijames’ pen.

James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which recently transferred to Broadway after a successful Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, tells the story of Juicy (Marcel Spears), a Black, queer, Southern college kid wrestling with his identity, his familial upbringing in a BBQ business, and, now, his father’s ghost (Billy Eugene Jones), demanding his son to avenge his death.

INTO chatted with Ijames and one of the play’s stars, Calvin Leon Smith, who plays Juicy’s longtime friend Larry in the theater district, before anticipated Tony Awards nominations to discuss the play’s impact.

“I love Shakespeare. I love dramatic literature that is written in a kind of poetry. I love the scale of the storytelling in Shakespeare. And I love being a Black person from the South. I love the culture I inherited from my ancestors who have been in the south for generations,” Ijames told INTO. “I feel an ownership of Shakespeare because Shakespeare is impossible without the subjugation of people. You don’t get art in a high culture like that without somebody having to suffer as a result of that. So I take ownership of that text because I feel like it’s my inheritance, just like the culture I grew up in.”

To Ijames, a native of North Carolina, and Smith, who hails from Tennessee, the stories and characters in Fat Ham feel like home because they’re influenced by Black Southern culture. If someone with the same heritage as Fat Ham’s Larry and its playwright looked at the play’s setting, they’ll instantly feel taken back home. 

Calvin Leon Smith and James Ijames
Calvin Leon Smith, left, and James Ijames. Photo by Jeff Eason for INTO

The production, directed by Saheem Ali, centers around the backyard of a fictional home in the American South. Flanked by coolers, wedding decorations, and BBQ smoking in the background, all you have to do is thrown in a dash of Frankie Beverley and Maze’s “Before I Let Go” (or Beyoncé’s version) to really set it off. But what brings it home are the speech and mannerisms that scream Black Southern culture.

“I think the way Black people in the South talk is heightened. It is literary,” said Ijames. “People don’t think of it that way, but it is just the everyday way people speak [that] feels special.”

That same speech exists throughout Fat Ham, which includes how the characters gossip. Ijames shares a common phrase in Black Southern tongue, ‘You ain’t heard this from…’ If you’ve ever been in conversation with a Black Southern, this phrase, which scrubs away all gossiping accountability, has been uttered. But Black Southerners also have a way of telling stories that date back to slavery that is simply embedded in our DNA. 

“I think the storytelling, but even more so, the cadence and syntax, the way things get spun. I also think about how things are said. Like, people just aren’t cousins, ‘that’s yo’ cousin,’” added Smith. “And I really miss that.”

All of these elements — from speech, restorative nostalgia, food, and even how Black Southerners congregate — signify how the influences of the South, Christianity, and Blackness have shaped the culture in this region of the United States. And now it’s on Broadway.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Fat Ham on Broadway
Marcel Spears, center, and the cast of ‘Fat Ham.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

According to a report from The Broadway League based on the 2018-19 season, 74% of Broadway audiences were white, with less than 4% comprised of Black attendees. The average annual household income for a Broadway theatergoer was over $261,000. But with more Black stories coming to Broadway, like the latest revival of Death of a Salesman or the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop, audiences can better reflect the Black actors that inhabit its stage.

But with more Black art comes more diverse audiences that engage differently, dismantling theatre decorum that’s become the status quo. One element is not speaking during a Broadway performance. 

“I say that the fourth wall doesn’t exist. It was created to manage people, like crowd control. I’m not really sure of the function of the fourth wall because it’s not historical,” said Ijames. “You go back to Greece, there is no fourth wall. They are sometimes talking to the audience. Shakespeare, those soliloquies are all to the audience. And it’s not just, ‘I want you to listen to me speak.’ It’s not one-sided.”

When I saw Fat Ham, I saw my identities in their entirety reflected at me, as did other attendees. One thing common among us was hyping up the cast or voicing commentary while the production was underway. Black members in the crowd would say something like, “Don’t hurt ‘em, now” or “I see you,” common phrases to bellow at a Black production in a church, school, movie, and now, Broadway. 

I made it a point to say at the end of this, we’re going to celebrate life, femininity, and all the things that are queer.

Playwright James Ijames

But if the audience changes, will Broadway protocol change too? Ijames hopes so.

“I grew up in a church. I grew up seeing gospel plays, where the performance is happening in both places,” Ijames said. “People get dressed up, they come with their friends, they’re talking about the show. I sat with my cousin in the audience, and she talked the whole show, and I loved every minute of it. I want everybody to feel like they could do that within reason.”

Studies have shown that Broadway audiences have been slow to diversify despite an increasing number of Black plays. (The 2021-22 season saw eight Black playwrights produced on Broadway.) But even if audiences aren’t connected to the material through heritage, Smith believes there are other ways to engage with the production. 

“I hope this play is also inviting a cultural shift into the theater. Inviting people — I mean white people —who start investing in and participating with the art in the way that Black folks do. I think that would just change the enjoyment of it for everybody,” Smith said. “I hope this play begins to just change audience dynamics because they’re being invited to a place where we do have a lot of Black people in the audience, and you better play ball.”

Redefining Black Masculinity

Marcel Spears and Calvin Leon Smith in Fat Ham
Marcel Spears, left, and Calvin Leon Smith in ‘Fat Ham.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

While an audience member outside of the Black, queer, and Southern community can find a way to engage with Fat Ham, the play centers Black queer Southerners. For us, Fat Ham acts as a conduit for healing through representation, storytelling, and cultural significance. 

“I mean, the young queer folks that I meet, a lot of them are from the South, are from small towns, they’re all like, ‘Thank you.’ It’s wild to me. It’s the thing you always want to do as an artist,  make something that makes an impact on somebody,” Ijames said.

The accomplished playwright recognizes the importance of his show. In a country where 469 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced, our community is essentially under attack. Commercial productions like Fat Ham and other recent Broadway openings, including Chicken and Biscuits and & Juliet create platforms for visibility and push back against queer erasure. Ijames knew precisely the message he wanted to convey: “I made it a point to say at the end of this, we’re going to celebrate life, femininity, and all the things that are queer.” 

And that celebration is loud and clear as the play strides toward breaking down the patriarchy and exploring healthy masculinity and softness. As Black, queer Southerners, Ijames, Smith, and myself know firsthand what it’s like to be raised in Black masculinity. As we talk, we exchange stories of how we were told to “toughen up” or pushed into traditionally masculine roles, points that translate to the stage through the characters of Juicy and Larry. 

Juicy is looking to start his own life, away from his sweet but enabling mom Tedra (Nikki Crawford), out of the shadow of his dead father (Jones), and far away from the clutches of his abusive uncle (also played by Jones). His support comes from his stoner cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) and his strengths are his empathy, compassion, and softness, which are hurled back at him as insults by the adults in his life. 

We see a similar experience for Larry, a marine with PTSD trying to manage the expectation of his younger sister Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and God-fearing mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas). Larry has been told all his life what he should be: tough, strong, and toxically masculine. But all he wants to be is the exact thing for which Juicy is berated: being “soft.” 

But Juicy and Larry aren’t the only ones starved for softness: audiences crave it, too. Smith described how, during one performance, his character and Marcel Spears’ Juicy share an intimate exchange.

“My line is, ‘I want to kiss you.’ And a Black woman said, ‘Do it!’” Smith said. “And it was just this great moment of joy. And I was like, this is actually incredible that we are being celebrated by a Black woman in the middle of this 700-person audience, and she’s begging for this softness and this intimacy between these two Black men on stage. That’s crazy.”

Finding softness means finding strength in being one’s authentic self and the consequential healing that stems from doing so. Soft is a word, feeling, and concept that resonates so strongly with both Ijames and Smith, and it conjures up the catalyst that made them feel so connected to the word, fellow playwright Donja R. Love.

Love is More Than a Word

Donja R. Love
Donja R. Love. Photo by Brandon Nick

Afro-Queer, HIV-positive playwright Donja R. Love is known for his plays that highlight Black queer sexuality, identity, intimacy, and softness and has been a big impact on both Ijames and Smith. From work such as one in two, Sugar in Our Wounds, and the play simply known as soft, Love creates worlds where Black queer people can be their most authentic selves. A part of that world creation seeped into the psyches of Ijames and Smith.   

Ijames and Love attended Temple University together, Ijames as a graduate student and Love as an undergraduate student.

“Until I met Donja, someone calling you ‘soft’ was an insult, and Donja made me realign how I thought about that, and I have a much more comfortable life,” said Ijames. “The first show of his that I saw, Sugar in Our Wounds, the way those two men were written, they were so gentle with each other, and the conflict wasn’t with their masculinity and how they were in space together. The conflict was we were enslaved. Also, I thought it was just radical to write a play about queer people during slavery.” 

Smith, too, was impacted by Love’s artistry. His connection to Love’s work came from when the playwright visited Smith’s class, where he wrote a ten-minute short play about two men on a slave ship bound for the United States. Love’s intention to bring softness within his work, even within a short play, also touched Smith. So when Smith and Ijames first connected over the softness within Fat Ham, a Love lightbulb went off. 

“The fact that you talk about [softness], and, obviously it’s in your work, but I thought it was something that was your own,” Smith said to Ijames. “but you’re very much inspired by Donja, and it’s beautiful.”

“I thought I needed to be edgy and disruptive,” Ijames responded, “and now I realize this is edgy and disruptive.”

A Celebration of the Feminine

 Marcel Spears, Billy Eugene Jones
Marcel Spears, left, and Billy Eugene Jones in ‘Fat Ham.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

In a world where toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and heteronormativity continue to reign supreme within society, being the antithesis of what numerous men’s rights activists preach is a birthright is a much-needed disruption. Like Ijames and Smith, many Black queer men have been stuck between pleasing the world and staying true to themselves. 

Ultimately, many fall victim to the latter, living life through someone else’s wishes and desires. Both Juicy and Larry are trapped between these opposing forces. But Ijames’ play is an examination and celebration of everything these two Black, queer Southerners are told not to be, culminating in a final triumphant scene brought to life by director Saheem Ali and choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie.

I hope this play is also inviting a cultural shift into the theater

Calvin Leon Smith

“Saheem is a dear friend and now longtime collaborator. Toward the end of the play, the script says, ‘The space cracks open into a celebration of the feminine.’ Then it gives all these suggestions of what could possibly happen. Saheem read that, and he made that performance with Calvin and the choreographer. And it’s absolutely in line with what I saw,” Ijames said. “I won’t tell you how, but the world does crack. And it is a celebration of the feminine and the queer. He’s absolutely brilliant.”

That final scene is one that initially scared Smith. The Juilliard-trained actor doesn’t consider himself a dancer, but it turned into a moment of therapy and catharsis that, while we won’t reveal how, will resonate with many Black, queer, Southern audience members. 

Think of Smith’s performance, or the space cracking, as Ijames refers to it, as the fissure within the shell that patriarchy traps everyone within. That shell gets chipped away during each performance of Fat Ham. And from each performance, the world of Broadway changes a little bit more each day. 

Fully dismantling the patriarchal system won’t be accomplished with one Broadway production or even a dozen. But what will happen is that one audience member or more will feel seen, heard, and taken care of by what Ijames has penned and what Smith helps bring to life. Audiences will start to change, leaving room for more Black queer Southerners to find their place in theatre, society, and the softness within themselves. ♦

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