The distinguished judges for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama most definitely got it right with their top recognition of James Ijames’ hilarious, heartfelt, and uplifting tragi-comedy Fat Ham, now in its extended NYC premiere at The Public Theater. A co-production with National Black Theatre, the highly acclaimed and affecting play is a brilliant reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Hamlet through the post-modern journey of a smart and sensitive queer Black college kid in the American South grappling with the older generation of his family over issues of identity, cycles of violence and trauma, and a quest for self-liberation.
When the ghost of Juicy’s father appears to him at a family cookout and demands that he avenge his murder – arranged by Juicy’s uncle, who, within the week, married his mother and took over their barbecue restaurant – it sets off an uproarious chain of events at the backyard wedding celebration that references the woes and words of Hamlet (which are very familiar to the online student, who, we are told, watches “too much PBS”) through a distinctly recent lens of growing up in the mid-to-late 20th century.
The ingeniously crafted story includes meaningful passages and soliloquies from “that dead old white guy” Shakespeare, dialogue in the vernacular of our times, clever word plays (including a witty take on “the rub” and use of the epithet “motherfucker – literally”), and repeated breaks through the fourth wall, with direct-address commentary, interactions with the audience, and a surprise metatheatrical ending that joyously answers the question, “Who says a tragedy has to be tragic?” Certainly not Ijames.
Under the impeccable direction of Saheem Ali, a masterful cast of seven delivers the laugh-out-loud humor, personal struggles, intergenerational conflicts, and distinctive personalities of the characters with high energy and deep empathy. Marcel Spears stars as the “soft” and anguished Juicy, faced with the onerous decision of whether to kill or not to kill his uncle, while remaining true to himself, slyly exposing the crime in a ‘charade-within-a-play’ party game, and dealing with the homophobic bullying of the ghost of Pap and abuse of his murderous lookalike brother Rev – both played with a domineering spirit of contemptible toxic masculinity by Billy Eugene Jones. Nikki Crawford as Juicy’s sizzling hot mother Tedra, whose sexy karaoke, dancing, clothes, and attitude turn up the heat of the barbecue, is loving and supportive in her own way of her gay son (to whom she gifted a sequined “Mama’s Boy” tee-shirt), but also defends her new husband to him, since she’s “not built to be alone.”
The dysfunctional inner circle is joined at the party by friends Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), her daughter Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), and son Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), whose conflicts about how they dress, what they do, and who they really are follow the same pattern as Juicy, until their secrets are outed and they can all finally be honest about themselves with each other and the world. Rounding out the entertaining and compelling supporting characters is Juicy’s stoner cousin and best friend Tio (the terrific Chris Herbie Holland), who comically speaks his mind, philosophizes while high, and chooses “pleasure over harm” with his open and effulgent good nature – a message that comes sparkling through in the show’s upbeat and affirming conclusion.
Maruti Evans’ top-notch scenic design captures the look of a suburban backyard with a wooden deck, Astroturf, and a sliding back door to the mid-century-style house, and the thrust stage with seating on three sides brings the action close to the audience (even using outdoor folding chairs, placed right on the faux lawn, for the front row). Lighting by Stacey Derosier and sound by Mikaal Sulaiman become appropriately spooky when the ghost appears (illusions design by Skylar Fox); Dominique Fawn Hill provides spot-on and amusing character-defining costumes, with hair and wigs by Earon Chew Nealey; and Lisa Kopitsky’s fight direction and choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie run the gamut of emotions from disturbingly vicious to dazzlingly exuberant.
For theatergoers unable to get tickets to this stellar sold-out Off-Broadway production of Fat Ham, we can only hope that it follows in the footsteps of its 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning predecessor A Strange Loop to an imminent Broadway transfer. I’ll be there for it, and so should you.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.
Fat Ham plays through Sunday, July 3, 2022, at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. To check on availability of tickets (starting at $50, plus fees), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.