Adapting a well-known work holds a challenge: unavoidable comparisons to the original piece. And there are few works better known than William Shakespeare’s seminal work, Hamlet, a play, it has been argued, that launched not just the following four hundred years of theater but the modern Western world’s sense of self. So it is nothing short of miraculous that James Ijames’s Fat Ham, winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize, not only holds up to that comparison, it manages to explore and amplify Shakespeare’s classic and to stand on its own as a wholly original piece of theater.
The basic story is familiar. Hamlet-like Juicy, played with charm and aplomb by Marcel Spears, is informed by the ghost of his father, Pap, that Pap was killed by Juicy’s uncle, Rev, who has just married Juicy’s mom/Pap’s widow, Tedra. Pap’s ghost demands revenge and Juicy, normally a non-violent guy, has to decide whether or not to kill his uncle.
But Fat Ham deviates from the play most English speakers read in high school or college in some crucial ways. First and foremost, the setting is the present-day American South and the family is African American (instead of the kingdom of Denmark, they control a local BBQ joint). Another notable difference is that Juicy is queer (as are the Ophelia and Laertes characters, Opal and her brother Larry – or perhaps it’s the other way around, with Larry as Ophelia and Opal, Laertes). And unlike his Elizabethan counterpart, Juicy’s memory of his father is tarnished. He wonders what he owes the cruel man who once threw his favorite Barbie in the smoker and later killed a man for having bad breath.
The biggest difference between the two plays, though, is that Fat Ham is a comedy. Gone are subplots, lesser characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, famous though lengthy monologues that can bog down even the best productions. What remains is lithe and lively, and the hour and a half goes by in the blink of an eye.
Saheem Ali’s masterful direction pays homage to the conventions of Shakespeare’s time without being in thrall to them. Juicy’s soliloquies are delivered with full knowledge that the audience is present; he’s aware he’s in a play. More than that, he knows he’s in an adaptation of Hamlet, and makes light of the comparison more than once. But the interactions are done with a light touch, and the direct audience address feels more modern than Elizabethan. Ali paces the show expertly, giving dramatic moments their due so that by the end, though we are quite clearly in a comedy, we are in our feelings, too.
The cast, all reprising the roles they created in the 2022 run at the Public Theater, quite clearly know what they’re doing. Playing the Gertrude-like Tedra, Nikki Crawford infuses deeply felt conviction into her character’s do-what-it-takes-to-survive outlook, and gets the comic beats just right. Likewise, Billy Eugene Jones plays Rev (and Pap) for laughs without sacrificing Rev’s complexity or danger. And as Rabby, Benja Kay Thomas gives an amazing rendition of that friend of your parents whom you tiptoe around for fear of offending them.
The center of the show is clearly Spears, who makes it easy to empathize with Juicy’s dilemma while playing the audience like a finely crafted violin. He delivers Ijames’s poetry, and Shakespeare’s, like he wrote it himself. The moment where he goes from an awkward, halting karaoke version of Radiohead’s “Creep” to a full-on rendition encapsulates the duality of his performance: he is both the character, beset by limitations, and the performer, able to do seemingly anything.
More than individual performances, though, the ensemble really clicks in playing off one another. When Juicy’s cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) and Juicy are on stage together, they feel natural, wild, and so funny. Rev and Tedra’s charged sexuality is cringey in just the right way. When it’s time for Larry (Calvin Leon Smith) and Juicy to share the stage, they exude raw vulnerability. Tedra and Juicy’s strong mother-son bond makes us understand why he can’t just turn his back on his family. And Adrianna Mitchell’s flinty Opal provides a great foil to “I’m an empath” Juicy.
The production team has ushered the play into its Broadway space exquisitely. Maruti Evans’s sets are unassuming (until they’re not!) and capture the time and place precisely. Bradley King’s lighting is theatrical when it needs to be. And Dominique Fawn Hill’s costumes, like Earon Chew Nealey’s hair and wigs, walk that delicate line, comical without being ridiculous.
But perhaps the most amazing aspect is the light Fat Ham sheds on Hamlet, revealing how central toxic masculinity is to the original play. The tragedy of Hamlet is that he has no choice: he must take the path of violence and avenge his father. Unlike Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night (which Shakespeare wrote around the same time as “Hamlet”), who is able to survive by escaping her narrow gender role, Hamlet cannot abandon traditional notions of masculinity and must therefore kill, bringing destruction not only on himself but on all those around him. Juicy’s ability to reject gender norms becomes his strength. Though he’s decried as “soft” by other characters throughout, Juicy’s queerness ends up protecting not just him but those he loves – it almost saves Rev, but for his unwillingness to accept help.
Watching Fat Ham is also probably as close as you’ll get to reproducing the sensation an Elizabethan-era audience might have had at the premiere of Hamlet. The modern theatergoer might not appreciate the in-jokes, cultural references, and nods to source texts that the Bard peppered throughout his plays, but we can certainly take pleasure from Ijames’s playful allusions to Hamlet woven into Fat Ham. You don’t have to be an expert Hamlet to thoroughly enjoy Fat Ham, but the more you do know, the richer the experience is bound to be.
After the performance, my theater companion gleefully speculated the entire show was inspired by “Ay, there’s the rub,” a line Juicy uses to unite Bard and barbecue for a big laugh. I suspect, though, that Ijames might have taken more inspiration from Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes in act 1 scene 3 of the non-barbecue version, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” The inability to follow that advice dooms Polonius, and Laertes, and arguably Hamlet himself. That a queer Black character in a similar situation shares a different fate is due to his willingness to adhere to this creed. And if he can do it, maybe we can, too.