I could write a one-sentence review of Fat Ham that would say nothing more than this: James Ijames’s Fat Ham distills the quintessence of Hamlet into a young Black queer Southern man singing karaoke to Radiohead’s “Creep” at a backyard wedding barbecue, while also infusing Shakespeare’s tragedy with raucous comedy and (spoiler alert) a parting shot of propulsive, disruptive joy. Because if that alone doesn’t make you want to run out and see it, then I might as well just stop there.
Fat Ham is brilliantly alive, a true tragicomedy (or a very, very funny tragedy) and an exuberantly metatheatrical dialogue with Shakespeare, America, and toxic masculinity, all at once, dissecting line by line how we collectively and individually negotiate the burdens of legacy, the weight of inherited trauma, the struggle to come into our own. Ijames’s–and the actors’–control of his material shines from every line: the specificity with which he engages both Hamlet and the characters he’s created, not to mention the tonal range, which can go from melodrama to metadrama to actual Shakespeare to surreal stoner comedy to gut-punching irony to heartbreak, line by line. The piece as a whole, in a tight ninety-five minutes, feels like it’s in a precisely engineered dialogue with the audience at every turn. It’s a remarkable piece of writerly craft that also delivers emotionally.
The script, of course, doesn’t particularly need me to sing its praises—Ijames won a Pulitzer for it last week, and it comes to the Public after a celebrated filmed mid-pandemic production by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater (where Ijames is a co-artistic director). But Saheem Ali’s production, anchored by Marcel Spears’s performance as Juicy, the Hamlet role, matches the precision and the control in Ijames’s writing.
We all know the story of Hamlet in its broad outlines–the dead king; the ghost; the revenge plot; the melancholy Dane; “to be or not to be”; the unseemly lust of mother and uncle; “the play’s the thing”; mad Ophelia; and a whole lot of death. Which makes it easy to think we know what we’re getting–we see the metaphor, pick up the joking echo of a Shakespearean line, lean in when characters break the fourth wall and encourage us to come in on the joke with them–but the play never ceases to surprise. Hamlet, here, is Juicy, a lonely Black mama’s boy in his early twenties, studying human resources at an online college, trying to find a way out of inheriting his dead father’s barbecue restaurant. His father, Pap (Billy Eugene Jones), was shanked in prison; his mother, Tedra (Nikki Crawford), has, yes, just run off to the courthouse and married Pap’s brother, Rev (Jones again), also a pitmaster, also a violent man like his brother, also contemptuous of Juicy for being “soft,” unmanly, queer. (Hamlet’s melancholy is refigured explicitly here as a failure of masculinity—that softness sets him apart, but being set apart isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Rev’s fate, in the end, will hinge on exactly how toxic his particular strain of masculinity has become.)
Tedra, who’s never been alone, who went from her daddy’s house to Pap’s, who likes a party and sex and fun, is hosting a wedding, dammit, even if her dead husband’s funeral wreaths still hang on the porch. Where Hamlet yearned for Ophelia, Juicy has inchoate longings, possibly reciprocated, for Larry/Laertes (Calvin Leon Smith), a paragon of conventional masculinity and few words in a Marine dress uniform. The rest of the guests are: Larry’s sister, Opal/Ophelia (Adrianna Mitchell), forced by her mother to play at femininity and not taking to it nearly as tidily as her brother. Their mother, Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas, playing Polonius refracted through a saintly Black church matron with a taste for brown liquor). Juicy’s cousin Tio/Horatio (Chris Herbie Holland), a happy-go-lucky pothead with no filter but occasionally surprising insight. And, of course, Pap’s ghost, charging his son with vengeance against the man who is a “literal mutherf*cker…literally f*cking your muther” (another immaculate distillation of most of an act of Hamlet). Juicy tries to make a case for metaphorically murdering his uncle, but Pap’s having none of it: Juicy must “make his thighs into hams. His intestines into chitlins” and serve Rev up butchered on a table.
The production matches the exuberance of the writing, with a design popping with telling details: Pap’s ghost clad in plaid picnic tablecloths and with actual smoke coming off his body (Skylar Fox gets an illusion design credit, I assume for this); the sumptuous feast, complete with party hats, laid out on Maruti Evans’s set; the sudden tonal shifts underscored by deep blue shifts in Stacey Derosier’s lighting; the technicolor sneakers Tio picks up at a yard sale of the deceased Yorick’s (yes, that Yorick) belongings (costumes by Dominique Fawn Hill). The performances, too, are strong across the board, starting of course with Spears, who’s as smooth and eloquent in the actual moments of Shakespeare and the direct audience address as he is conflicted and wounded when dealing with his mother and uncle. In addition, I got especial joy out of Holland’s Tio, who gets not only perhaps the play’s best monologue but some of its most surprising insights, and who brings a genuine sweetness to Tio’s raunch, and Mitchell’s Opal, so resentful of the dress she’s wearing that it sometimes seems her sheer disdain might make it crumble into rags right on her body, but with a pure conviction that she’ll find her place in the world.
Fat Ham refracts Shakespeare through so many lenses the whole thing should shatter: Through American, and specifically Black American, vernacular. Through an interrogation of toxic masculinity and generational violence. (As Tio says, “Your Pop went to jail, his Pop went to jail, his Pop went jail, his Pop went to jail and what’s before that? Huh? Slavery.” It’s breathtaking in its simplicity, and yet it cuts through the play.) Through queerness 360, with the entire play’s entire younger generation—its Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, and Horatio—all questioning and twisting the gendered expectations laid down for them (and in this vein, I cannot fail to mention Tio’s gonzo stoned fantasy involving fellatio and gingerbread men, which quite possibly has nothing to do with anything and yet is delivered by Holland with such sincerity that it becomes a high point). And in the end, through refusing to accept the tragic narrative even when it seems baked in: baked in to America, baked in to Hamlet, baked into Juicy’s options the minute he’s born as the son of a violent criminal who’d murder a guy for bad breath. (Really, really bad breath, but still.)
Ijames is making a breathtakingly audacious argument against the whole architecture of tragedy—against the burden of inherited trauma, against the gendered and racialized violence seeped into American history like Rev and Pap’s famous barbecue rub into a brisket, against the burdens and failures of masculinity. We don’t have to throw away history—literary history, American history, theater history—but we don’t have to play it straight, either. There’s so much pain here and yet Ijames refuses to let that bind him: refuses to kill everyone off at the end; insists on ending with joy. It’s blisteringly funny, genuinely tragic, surprising, hopeful, and some pretty solid old school Shakespeare, not even by turn but pretty much all at the same time; it captures so much of both what’s pathological about family and what’s surprising and good. What’s pathological about America and the joy we can still hope for. Go see it.