‘Fat Ham’ is Smokin’ Sumptuous in its Broadway Transfer
What I enjoy most about seeing Fat Ham in its transfer from The Public Theatre (my review of the Public Theater production) to Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre, are the sardonic tropes which send up William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a Jacobean revenge tragedy, where privileged white royals end up slaughtering each other for power with a particular lack of grace, wisdom and spirituality. Fat Ham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, James Ijames, writes with a joyous, “diabolical” and a steel-sharpened keyboard, with which he extracts the choicest cuts of the Bard’s meatiest speeches, to reveal the enlightened soul of the would-be avenger of his father’s killer, Juicy (the sublime Marcel Spears). Directed by Saheem Ali Fat Ham’s transfer is a delectable winner.
Juicy is the “fat ham,” shortened for Hamlet. The title references Juicy’s necessary acting “chops” in his pursuit of the truth. The title also refers to the succulent pork roast plumping his middle. Ham is also one of the items being served at the barbecue wedding celebration “honoring” mom Tedra (Nikki Crawford) and Juicy’s Uncle Rev (Billy Eugene Jones). Ironically, the meaty feast is a postmortem contribution by the late, great, pit master, Juicy’s father, who owned and managed the family butcher shop and restaurant, which now is owned by Uncle Rev (Claudius-like), who has “supplanted his brother’s place in Tedra’s bed and affections.
Juicy, like the other characters, elements and themes, represents the antithesis of dramatic particulars in Shakespeare’s complex tragedy. Ijames has a blast flipping Hamlet on its head, layering additional profound complexity to a similar plot, as he highlights Black experience in a racist North Carolina. But the beauty of this production is it riotous humor spread “thicc” everywhere you turn, so one can carefully divine the irony, puns, quips and punchy lines that send up the tragedy it twits.
For example white, colonial, Danish heir to a royal dynasty urged to seek revenge by his impeccable, kind and kingly Dad’s ghost? Nope! However, Juicy is a son, disinherited by his murdering uncle and saddled by the wicked, violent ghost of his father to wreck revenge. The method? The ghostly, white-sequined, flashily suited Pap (Billy Eugene Jones plays both brothers), demands that Juicy slaughter Rev, gutting him like they do with the hogs they butcher. After he is slit open, then Pap wants Juicy, who knows butchering, to slice Rev up into roasts, chops, hams and grind his testicles into a powder. Then, Juicy must invite over friends and family to feast on him. Pap’s description is revoltingly humorous, and Juicy questions every word, and rightfully accuses Pap of being unloving, cruel and demeaning to him and his mom.
Antithesis reigns in this brilliant LOL comedy. From Juicy’s race and gender to Pap’s obnoxious, ignoble character, to mom Tedra’s wild, sexy, lap-dancing antics, to porn-loving, hyperbolic cousin Tio, to Larry and Opal’s gay reveal, and relative Rabby’s evangelical praise Jesus, preach-it hypocrisy, Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius are partly recognizable. More’s the fun realizing the ironic, deadpan reversals of character to their counterparts.
Tio’s characterization is especially noteworthy. In Hamlet Horatio is the balanced, unemotional, wise, educated courtier, worthy and emblematic of all the traits one would look for in a trusted scholar and friend. Instead, a reserved, watchful Juicy provides the acute, wise commentary to Tio and those his age, while Tio is plainly off the wall and not sure of his identity, as he seek avenues of expression that are unbalanced and addictive. He is seeing a therapist who does give him good advice about how trauma travels through the history of families, as Tio identifies that Juicy’s family has trauma packed into the male genes from slavery onward.
In these roles the actors shine effortlessly. An incredible ensemble, they work seamlessly with not one particulate of comedic pacing or rhythmic, emotional bit out of place. Along with the smooth Marcel Spears, the marvelous players include the crazy wild patriarch and sneaky, underhanded brother Billy Eugene Jones, uber fit, riotous Nikki Crawford as Tedra, the humorously “out-of-hand” Chris Herbie Holland as Tio, the funny, bored, seemingly dim-witted Adrianna Mitchell as Opal, the turn-on-a-dime hysterical Calvin Leon Smith (love his dance) as Larry, and the wonderfully buoyant, hallelujah-loving Benja Kay Thomas as Rabby, Larry’s and Opal’s mom.
Leading this cast, Spear’s Juicy appears content in himself and settled in his identity as a sensitive gay man, in the face of ridicule about his online college education at Phoenix, and his gay sensibility. He eschews his father and uncle for branding themselves with power exemplified by their criminal behavior. He knows the difference between inner strength, fear and inferiority. With equanimity, he receives the information that Tedra prompted by Rev used up his college money for a refurbished bathroom. His non-violent response when Rev and Larry hit him, deemed “soft” by Pap and Rev, is wisdom. Juicy’s inner spirit and soul are cast in the threads of nobility, historically woven by great Black Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis. There is brilliant understatement in the characterizations, if one has the eyes to see Ijames resonant themes.
The beauty of Fat Ham‘s comedic rendering is its lack of preachiness and political rhetoric. With contemplation, sensibility and humor, Juicy, unlike Hamlet, has found his voice and is comfortable in his skin. Thus, he is able to counsel Opal not to be pushed around to fit other’s labels, so she can be herself. Peaceful, calm, he calculates that the blood-thirsty act of revenge is a reprehensible manifestation of generational exploitation and institutional racism. Murder is a curse begun in slavery and perpetrated in Black impoverishment, whose answer has been drug crimes, thefts, Black on Black killings and profitable incarceration by white racist oppressors. The “buck” stops with Juicy’s delicious ham (actor, truth seeker, truth teller).
He is the only one who understands how his family has been incredibly victimized, while Pap and Rev with a modicum of financial security don’t realize how murdering one another is the internalization of racism and weakness born out of a violent past. Juicy affirms after his wonderful delivery of Hamlet’s speech about “catching the conscience of ‘the king'” and noting Rev’s reaction, that revenge is not the suit he wishes to wear. Why should he carry on the family tradition of blood-letting as a generational birthright so he can live down to Pap and Rev’s image of a macho power player? He will set himself free of such chains, and with inner security and knowledge, reject Pap and Rev’s labels and destructive, racially ensnared behaviors.
Nevertheless, as the hysterical events at the barbecue unfold, Juicy turns the “beat” around. In his multiple asides to the “listeners out there in the dark,” Spears creates great humor by winking, gesturing, flipping his hand in coded messages to the audience. This is questioned by the other characters i.e. Tedra who wants to know what he has said about her to us.
The barbecue whose lush set design of a North Carolina one-story middle class home surrounded by trees, sky, a modest deck and backyard, realistically sports set designer Maruti Evans’ astro turf lawn and smoker, where Rev grills the meat. As the large table is laid out and family gathers to eat the biscuits, corn, potato salad and grilled pork, the party takes off into hilarity. Rev delivers a hypocritical prayer with Rabby’s loud, Holy Spirit anointed yells. After they eat, the family and friends tramp around with wild karaoke and charades, during which Juicy catches Rev’s guilty response. However, unlike the tragic end of Hamlet, this is a marvelous comedy and there is no more Black on Black crime. Juicy has ended the family curse of bondage to institution racism’s impact on his family. And Rev does perish. You’ll just have to see Fat Ham to find out how, and to also enjoy the celebratory finish that Calvin Leon Smith’s Larry provides with pizzazz and glam.
Dominique Fawn Hill’s costume design is funny and ironic. Bradley King’s lighting design during the karaoke sequence is atmospheric and mood-filled. Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design, and Earon Chew Healey’s hair and wig design reflect Saheem Ali’s vision for this superior Broadway transfer which improves upon itself and deepens the Public’s original presentation.
Importantly, the daylight ghost sequence and the illusion designs by Skylar Fox indicate that side by side, the supernatural/spiritual reside with the realities that the characters acknowledge. There is no need to deliver spookiness on a dimly lit stage. The characterization that Ijames draws of Pap’s inner anger, fear and outrage which is karmic (he has killed and he is killed) is frightening enough in all of its humanity. Likewise, how Rev is dispatched by karma is not spooky, it is real and horrifying. This is especially so in a time after COVID when there’s enough fear in unexplained, sudden deaths to last another 100 years. Lastly, the institutional generational historical racism which ghosts in the culture and traditions of this family and binds them to uncontrollable actions they’ve been brainwashed to accept holds enough horror for a lifetime. Juicy’s snapping those chains with his love, peace and irony is a welcome experience for our time.
The production is not to be missed for its superb ensemble, exceptional technical creatives and design teams, and the masterful direction of Saheem Ali, who create his vision to elucidate Ijames’ vital themes. For tickets at the American Airlines Theatre, go to the box office at 42nd street or online at their website: https://www.fathambroadway.com/book-tickets/ But do so now because the show has a limited run and ends in June.
‘runboyrun’ and ‘In Old Age’ Two Magnificent Works by Mfoniso Udofia
What is the impact of experiencing a genocidal civil war when one’s ancestry, bloodline and religion are used as targeted excuses for extermination? If one survives, is it possible to overcome the wartime horrors one experienced? Or is the sufferer doomed to circularly repeat the emotional ravages of past events that erupt from the unconscious and imprison the captive forever in misery? How is such a cycle broken to begin a process of healing?
In runboyrun, Mfoniso Udofia, first-generation Nigerian-Amerian playwright, through poetic flashback and mysterious revelation, with parallel action fusing the past with the present, explores these questions. Majestically, in her examination of principal characters Disciple Ufot (the superb Chiké Johnson), and his long-suffering wife Abasiama Ufot (the equally superb Patrice Johnson Chevannes), we witness how Disciple overcomes decades of suffering with the help of Abasiama during a night which is a turning point toward hope and redemption.
A bit of backstory is warranted. In 2017 New York Theatre Workshop presented two of Mfoniso Udofia’s plays in repertory (Sojourners, Her Portmanteau). runboyrun and In Old Age are two of Mfonsio Udofia’s offerings which are plays in The Ufot Cycle, a series of nine plays in total which chronicles four generations of a family of stalwart women and men of Nigerian descent. Though the plays currently presented at NYTW are conjoined to elucidate similar themes, they do not run in sequence. Nevertheless, both plays spotlight Mfonsio Udofia as a unique female voice of the African diaspora in the United States. Both represent the particularity of her exceptional work from a maverick’s perspective.
The first play directed by Loretta Greco begins with a flashback of a sister and brother. The setting is January, 1968 Biafra, the southern part of Nigeria that attempted to gain independence from Nigeria during the three year Biafran Civil War. During a lull in the shelling by the government in a hideout in the bush, the sister comforts her brother with a metaphorical story about the foundation of humanity and life. Then she encourages him to run as a game. However, it is the one activity that will save their lives as they escape the Nigerian soldiers at every turn, until they reach a safe place in a compound with their mother and brother.
This setting alternates to the present January, 2012, where we are introduced to the Ufots, transplanted Nigerians who immigrated to the United States, became citizens and eventually settled in the ramshackle interior of their colonial house in Massachusetts. However, from the moment Johnson’s Disciple enters their cold, dank home and with bellicosity relates to Chevannes’ Abasiama, we understand that their estrangement is acute. For her part Abasiama, who lies on the couch in the center of the living room wrapped up in layers of clothing with blankets and sheets thrown over her head, disengages from his behaviors, attempting to stay away from his weird, oppressive antics.
Disciple attempts to control her every move, berates and blames her for the bad spirits in the house. However, it becomes obvious that it is he who suffers derangement. He is fixated on the perception that everything outside him and especially his wife are the source of his bad luck and the wickedness that plagues him and threatens to upend his life and his writing. In what we learn has become a ritualistic practice, Disciple uses a thin stick to circumscribe areas as safe to prevent evil spirits from disarranging and unsettling his peace. Abasiama, used to this behavior, plays Christian music; Christianity was a part of their Igbo ancestry. However, after Disciple’s exorcism, when he attempts to begin work on a new book, the past erupts. Once more the playwright creates flashbacks which establish and explain Disciple’s instability and borderline insanity.
Udofia’s structure interlacing the past with the present is particularly strengthened by Andrew Boyce’s scenic design which threads the action, symbols and themes. The house is divided in a cross section symbolizing the division in Disciple’s and Abasiama’s relationship and marriage so we see how both conduct their lives in separate parts of the house: Abasiama upstairs, Disciple in the basement. They do not communicate, nor are they intimate with each other’s thoughts and feelings, sharing little if anything of their histories, a tragedy which has led to the disintegration of their marriage. Their lives are separately lived; they buy food separately, use different refrigerators. Disciple cooks for himself and they take their meals separately because he believes she may poison him.
The separation extends even to the different churches they attend and Disciple’s cruel treatment of Abasiama, which she sustains because to take a stand against it would rain down more abuse. Disciple begrudges Abasiama warmth for the upper floors which have insufficient heat to brace up against the cold Worcester, Massachusetts winter. This behavior of keeping the upper floors cold reflects Disciple’s abusiveness and penuriousness, not only with finances but with emotional intimacy and love.
The division/cross section symbolizes a number of elements which define the characters so acutely portrayed by Johnson and Chevannes with maximum authenticity. It represents the compartmentalization of Abasiama’s and Disciple’s minds, especially Disciple’s as it relates to his unconscious memories which he’s suppressed, and on this night erupt with great ferocity. For Abasiama, she compartmentalizes her rage and anger against Disciple; to express the emotions will result in violence so she must be stoic. The events that play out from the past take place in the “basement” area. Events move upstairs when Abasiama extends grace to Disciple and he relives the flashback that has shaken his soul and increasingly knocked on his heart to be released as he has aged. If he does not, surely he will damage and destroy everything he has, most importantly his relationship with Abasiama.
It is in the “basement” of his being on this particular night that Disciple confronts the spirits that have haunted him for decades. By the play’s conclusion he revisits the blood soaked memories of his childhood during the horrors of the Biafran War. The spirits rise and their energy drives him to the brink of irrationality, which he takes out on Abasiama, who finally proclaims “enough,” and tells him she wants a divorce. In shock he returns downstairs and she hears him raving against the energies that roil him (his unconscious terror and guilt).
Mfoniso Udofia expertly weaves in concurrent flashbacks which reveal seminal events that shattered Disciple’s consciousness and emotionally freeze him in time. We learn why he is psychotic in recreated scenes of his family: sister (Adrianna Mitchell), mother (Zenzi Williams), Benjamin (Adesola Osakalumi). Karl Green portrays Disciple as a boy. And on Abasiama’s encouragement and love, he finally reaches the core event to expurgate it and grieve, thus beginning the healing process.
Chiké Johnson is acutely, sensitively invested in his portrayal of Disciple. Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Abasiama is expert and uplifting at the conclusion of runboyrun. And in the segue to the next play, we see her transformation into a withered, dried up old woman living with the rage and fury bestowed upon her by Disciple who has died by the opening of In Old Age.
It is Abasiama’s fury that has carried over from her time with Disciple that Mfoniso Udofia examines in the play In Old Age. The stoicism we see in runboyrun blossoms into rage against herself for “putting up with” Disciple and not leaving him. Whether such anger manifests when we age, so that we have no tolerance for ourselves and are grumpy and angry with others is an interesting question that Mfoniso Udofia posits. Yet, it is in Abasiama’s interactions with Azell Abernathy the workman (Ron Canada), that the emotional abuse she never discussed or confronted Disciple about is now coming to call. And likewise, the tragic alcoholic-fueled abuse that centered around Abernathy’s marriage, that Abasiama intuits harmed his marriage, becomes a focal point of their interactions.
Abernathy and Abasiama clash and their expressed annoyances with each other are sometimes humorous. However, because they are both Christians, they attempt to bear up with one another. Indeed, Abernathy is much more determined to do so than initially Abasiama seems to want to. How Mfoniso Udofia brings these two together to establish the beginnings of a loving relationship is a lesson in grace and the spiritual need for forgiveness and emotional healing.
The plot development of In Old Age is simple. Azell Abernathy must persuade Abasiama to allow him to repair her house, the same house that she lived in with Disciple. However, the house is in more than need of repair. Abasiama hears what she believes is Disciple ranging and banging around in the basement. Just like in runboyrun when Disciple projected his terror and hurt onto Abasiama, now Abasiama projects her rage and anger onto the house and in magical realism fashion, it manifests in banging and noise.
One of the problems is that Abasiama subverted her own healing and empowerment to help Disciple redeem himself. Now she regrets her sacrifice and unselfishness. As a result, when Abasiama is forced to deal with Azell Abernathy (Ron Canada in a highly nuanced, sensitive, clarion performance), whom her daughters have paid to repair the house, the rage has so swelled inside of her she drips bile. Toward Abernathy, she is provocative and she riles him to the point where he nearly becomes abusive. However, he has learned. He leaves, goes outside and prays for her.
His prayers work with power and change comes with revelation. Abasiama realizes she can no longer carry around past hurts and regrets. To expurgate them, she cleans out the “basement” (symbolic of her own soul and psyche), of all of the artifacts that Disciple kept there. As she throws them out, she frees herself realizing she is responsible for her own happiness and cannot blame her misery on Disciple. Cleansed from a night of dealing with her own regrets about her life, Abasiama is ready to face a new day. In a great, symbolic gesture, Abernathy washes her feet as Christ did with his disciples, showing he forgives her and forgives himself. It is an act of sublime strength. She receives his good will, Christian love and faith. She removes her shackles represented by her headdress and shows Abernathy her true self. She is beautiful. In their old age they have found love after confessing their faults to each other to be healed.
In Old Age is a hopeful, redemptive encomium to our ability to grow and regenerate our souls if we face ourselves. Directed by Awoye Timpo, In Old Age is just lovely and the complex performances by Canada and Chevannes are sterling, poignant and uplifting. Kudos to Andrew Boyce (scenic design), Karen Perry (costume design), Oona Curley (lighting design).
These are productions you do not want to miss for the profound beauty of Mfoniso Udofia’s work and the great ensemble acting. The tension in runboyrun is truly striking. runboyrun and In Old Age are at NYTW on 4th Street between 2nd and the Bowery. The production runs with one intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.