‘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.