Pulitzer Prize winning Fat Ham a hybrid genre “tragedy,” “comedy” take-off on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet ingeniously tweaks the concept of the revenge play while upending with quips and double entendres every stereotypic trope and meme of the majestic language of the Bard. James Ijames’ facile and seamless adaptation of the familiar and unfamiliar in one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays reveals his exceptional wit, and gobsmacking sensitivity that is at once a send up of age-old themes, yet a profound exploration of current issues in black culture. Now in its extended NYC premiere at The Public Theater, Fat Ham is a co-production with the National Black Theatre.
Directing with pace and timing to incorporate joy, wackiness, and profound, spellbinding, cutting hurts of father/son, nephew/uncle animus, Saheem Ali knows the inside of Ijames’ book and incorporates the selected cultural music with an appropriate meld in the backyard celebration of Rev and Tedra’s wedding celebration. Immediately, we fall in love with plump Juicy portrayed by Marcel Spears whose every cell is tuned up to inhabit the perspicacious, loving, forbearing and wise, gay, college-age kid who is made dizzy in having to confront the cultural confusion of what it is to be black and gay in the American South, something both his deceased father Pap and Uncle Rev (played exceptionally by the edgy Billy Eugene Jones) find repulsive.
As Juicy and his friend and cousin Tio (the marvelously irreverent Chris Herbie Holland) set up for the party, we discover the backstory as Ijames primes the fountain of humor with one liners, quips and jokes between Juicy who’s decorating and Tio who’s watching porn on his phone. Tio doesn’t skip a beat lusting after Juicy’s hot MILF mama Tedra (the exquisite and outrageous Nikki Crawford) when she comes into the backyard.
Crawford’s Tendra makes her showy, striking, drop-dead, dancer body entrance to ask Juicy for his opinion about which sexy outfit to wear. Clearly, she gets off looking young and attention grabbing and Juicy, her baby, flatters her with what she needs. Obviously, they are close and adore one another; hence the subtle and not-so-subtle Oedipal references to mother/son relationship which Ali further references with Juicy’s change up into a black T-shirt with pink sequined lettered “Mama’s Boy” on the front.
Around this time as Juicy and Tio set up balloons in the backyard of Tedra’s house (superbly detailed with a smoker grill, screen doors to view inside rooms of the house, Astroturf, expansive, wooden deck, etc. designed by Maruti Evans), something weird happens. A red and white checkered tablecloth flies from one end of the yard to the other. Initially, it appears that someone threw the tablecloth, except it is not a projectile, it streams and flutters, zipping speedily and covering enough ground to spook Tio, who recognizes it as a ghost.
Subsequently, under a brown and white table cloth, Juicy’s father Pap speaks out unghostlike, as he throws off the tablecloth humorously and makes his dynamic entrance in a sequined white suit, sporting striking white hair (thanks to Dominique Fawn Hill’s sensational costume design and Earon Chew Healey’s hair and wig design). As ghostly presences go, his is hilarious. Occasionally, the steam from his betwixt and between state of limbo wisps up from his collar, proving his ghostly being is supernatural and otherworldly. The ghostly effects by Skylar Fox’s illusion design are coolly delivered, and sufficient enough to make us believe that Pap is not from the land of the living.
Having a hard time negotiating Pap’s return and his supernatural condition, Juicy quips about his being deceased and surprising as ghosts go, but Pap isn’t having any jokes. He’s furious. He upbraids his son for being “soft,” referencing his disapproval with Juicy’s gay lifestyle in a typical macho Dad infusion of homophobia. Then, Juicy indicts Pap for not liking him or ever being the loving, mature guide a father should be. Indeed, Ijames’ characterizations credit Juicy for shunning his father’s lifestyle and sticking to one that is more wholesome and life affirming, though culturally, not acceptable.
However, as Pap relates why he has returned, the reveal of Pap’s characterization turns on a dime that he is proud of his machismo. We learn that he is an ancestral criminal whose family provoked a crime spree over generations. His ancestors have passed down this legacy of their criminality all the way back to the days of slavery. And having been abused and abusing, in the course of running his barbecue restaurant, Pap murdered and ended up in prison where he, too, was murdered.
Interestingly, the parallel is drawn. If one doesn’t choose criminality to establish one’s identity and manhood as a black man, what choice does one have? Clearly, Pap’s disgust with Juicy’s choice also goes to what he wants Juicy to do for him. Get revenge on his “sainted” brother who had him killed in prison, then move into his bed and life. The only way for Pap to gain revenge is murder. Pap doesn’t see his way clear to changing up the tradition of criminality with his son which would be a greater form of revenge on the culture of racism by not following the stereotypes the racist culture promulgates. But for the cruel and infamous Pap, the sweetest pay back would never be through redemption or ending the cycle of self-destruction prompted by racism. Pap wants an eye for an eye and to reestablish his respect and manhood through his son.
Unfortunately, for Pap, Juicy isn’t a criminal. His hopes and dreams and his identity journeys in a different direction. Thus, Pap’s need for his revenge may be aborted. Juicy must decide what he wants for himself. And part of the first conflict is whether or not Juicy will go through with Pap’s plans or resist them. After all, Pap may not be who he presents himself to be. He may be a devil tempting Juicy to repeat the same old nullifying actions his ancestors have enacted, living lives of misery and gaining an early death. In a fun recapturing of part of the speech Hamlet (Juicy) delivers to Horatio (Tio), Juicy suggests he will test the ghost to divine the truth.
Though it is never mentioned or suggested, in Fat Ham racism is the elephant in the room. Because of it, Pap’s attitudes about Juicy being gay and not being manly close out other choices for his son in Pap’s estimation. The choice for a black man is to be a macho criminal. And only a macho criminal can get a proper revenge and most importantly respect. That Juicy is bucking the stereotype of black men as criminals doesn’t appeal to Pap. That racism has closed off options for Pap so that he would never consider going to college like Juicy is understated. However, as the play progresses, Juicy has choices and will not be held down by Pap’s definitions of manhood, identity and success. Yet, hating his uncle and missing Pap, even though he was mean and cruel, he has to get justice for Pap’s murder. How he does that is the linchpin of this wonderful production.
The beauty of Fat Ham is like Juicy says, sometimes tragedies don’t have to end like tragedies where everyone dies. Ijames jumps back to Shakespearean prose in crucial aspects of the play, including soliloquies about catching the conscience of Rev with a game of charades during the entertainment portion of the down-home celebration. Also, Juicy breaks the fourth wall and confides in the audience. He effectively gestures, rolls his eyes and with superb pacing and timing flicks his fingers in response to silly comments by one or the other of the characters.
Like the other actors, Juicy’s pauses are weighted for a laugh which he and they always get. The innate timing is a function of brilliant performance technique as well as practice and precise shepherding by the director. The laughs come because the actors are authentic and spot-on. I could have stayed and watched another one half hour. I felt engaged and was having such fun with the machinations and carryings on of the characters.
In breaking the fourth wall with direct-address commentary, Marcel Spears is masterful. At the point where he ruminates about how he will trip up Rev and watch for his reactions, at the beginning of the soliloquy, Spears looked at the audience confidentially and said “The Supreme Court is ghetto.” This was Friday evening after a day’s news of the Supreme Court’s decision against Roe. Spears received two full minutes of applause. He waited, then seamlessly segued into his plan to catch Rev. Wonderful at creating a relationship with the audience, by the conclusion we could have gone up and hugged him.
Charismatic, alive his performance was cleverly unassuming. His interactions with his fellow actors’ characters were completely natural and endearing. Considering that he had the most stage time, the pressure was on him to carry the show. There were a few breaks here and there when the spotlight was on others. For example, Chris Herbie Holland’s stoned rhapsody on why you should live to enjoy your life and stop being negative as an out of his mind riff is wonderful. Marvelous, too, is Larry’s transformation from soldier to what he’s wanted to do perhaps his entire life. His friendship with the free-wheeling Juicy allows him to reveal what he is capable of. Calvin Leon Smith knocks his concluding performance out of the park. It makes sense the production ends with him.
Joining the celebration mid way and present for Juicy’s confrontation with his murderer uncle are friends Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas in a wonderful send-up of the religious, strict, black Mama), her daughter Opal (Adrianna Mitchell’s bored, obedient-disobedient Lesbian), and son Larry (Calvin Leon Smith). Their interactions pair up perfectly with Juicy as they discuss their personal lives and break free from parental strictures and manifest their chosen identity. Their interactions provide grist and humor as they unravel their specific characterizations. What is incredibly upbeat about Fat Ham is the roller coaster ride into humor and fun with just enough Shakespeare to make it interesting and memorable.
The second half of the play with the entertainment portion, i.e. Tendra’s searing hot grinding Kareoke, Juicy’s soulful wailing that Rev characteristically puts down and the charades they play that lead to the reveal, all work beautifully and keep the vibrance climbing to the plays explosive climax. How the actors chow down on their barbecue and integrate the song portions into their partying is realized perfectly thanks to their prodigious talent and Ali keeping it as real as possible. Even the corn looked delicious. Importantly, Juicy confronts Rev ‘s murder of his father. What happens after that certainly is karma stepping up to the plate and hitting back.
The themes about truth and honesty being necessary to fight cultural folkways that destroy are the strongest. The performances are riotous, loving and spot-on. The ensemble work is some of the best I’ve seen this year. I can’t recommend Fat Ham enough as one of the finest productions of the season. It has moved from other venues and may go to Broadway. However , if the venue is a smaller house, that might be the best. This play’s greatness is its intimacy that Juicy achieves with the audience as his confidante. It may be lost in a too large venue.
Kudos to the creative team. Not mentioned are Stacey Derosier purposeful lighting (the surreal blue was excellent for enhancing the Ali’s wild staging and character poses. The sound by Mikaal Sulaiman was uniform in each of the songs sung and the supernatural musical elements were eerie. Lisa Kopitsky’s fight direction was realistic. Marcel Spears fall was dramatic and there were gasps from the audience believing Juicy was hurt. Finally, Darrell Grand Moultrie’s choreography was exuberant and for the concluding number hysterical.
Fat Ham is extended to 17th of July. For tickets and times for this must-see production, go to their website. https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2122/fat-ham/ I just loved it!