You won’t find theater more succulent than this: James Ijames’ Fat Ham at Studio Theatre is a scrumptious feast for the soul — fork-tender, perfectly rendered, and brimming with zest!
Fat Ham, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and had a Tony-nominated Broadway run, is unlike any kind of Hamlet you’ve ever seen. It’s more than an adaptation, and beyond a mere update. What James Ijames has done is revolutionary because he uses the structure and good bones of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to pose new questions and offer new answers. He grafts new skin to the story of violence and revenge and ultimately death, replacing it with one offering the possibility of breaking the cycles of violence and the potential of rebirth and joy. I love Shakespeare’s language. And Ijames might demure from being called a Shakespeare for our time. But why even compare? Ijames’ commentary on the human condition is as incisive and his writing is equally as sharp as the Bard’s. There is gold in this dialogue.
Fat Ham is a Black, queer, and Southern version of Hamlet. If you want to know what that means, go! I will not spill the tea. But I will share that there is karaoke, charades, and a lot of carrying on! This production is pure fun. Fans of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will enjoy mapping the old to the new, to identify where the parallels lie and where the stories differ. And newcomers to the original will be able to add contemporary context to the classic should they choose to experience it in the future. Teaser: I was electrified when the main character, Juicy, delivers a monologue almost word for word from Hamlet, because of where and when it occurs. Transformative choices like this are breathtaking.
Director Taylor Reynolds should also be commended for bringing the audience into the story in a way that was impossible during the Broadway run. I first saw Fat Ham there and wondered how it would transfer to a smaller venue like the Mead at Studio. Of course, the Broadway show was fabulous, and seeing it on Black Theater Night made the performance even more spectacular. But I have to say, I like the Reynolds-directed production at Studio even more. Her staging decisions pulled us into the action. The light changes clearly indicated the actors were breaking the fourth wall and added to the narrative by spotlighting them and allowing us to focus. Indeed, the actors made eye contact with the audience throughout, seeking agreement or understanding. Their emotions were palpable. Their energy leaped from the stage. I felt like a guest at a family barbeque watching a family expose their vulnerabilities.
The cast is superb individually and as an ensemble.
Juicy (Marquis D. Gibson), the Hamlet character, is pitch-perfect as the sensitive and sardonic queer son who is visited by the revenge-seeking ghost of his father. Our compassion for Juicy grows with each scene as he reveals the depth of his love for his mother and his loathing toward his uncle. Gibson physically transforms into Juicy through expressive eyes, shoulder slumps, sighs, and silences so convincingly that his melancholy, despair, and uncertainty become written on his body. His is a star-making performance.
Juicy’s mother, Tedra (Tanesha Gary), a kind of Gertrude, was a steel frame covering up softness, which she never hid from Juicy or the rest of us. As one departing patron remarked, Tedra was the only character that didn’t have a secret, yet she served as the glue holding the ensemble together, weaving them into a unit. It’s clear why Juicy is devoted to her.
Rev (Tedra’s husband) and Pap (the Ghost of Juicy’s father) are played by Greg Alverez Reid, who effortlessly switches between Juicy’s sharp-tongued uncle/stepfather and his haunting father. While both characters seethed with anger, Rev and Pap were each distinguishable as a presence on the stage.
Larry, like a Laertes, is played by Matthew Elijah Webb, who continues the class act from his performance in the role on Broadway. His buttoned-down soldier bristles with suppressed desire.
Tio, kind of the Horatio, played by DC native and Duke Ellington School of the Arts alum Thomas Walter Booker, oozes stoner charm. He delivers some of the best quips. “Your daddy ain’t been gone a week and he already Stanley Steemering your mom.” In one scene he recounts a weed-induced virtual-reality experience (while dressed in a Goosebumps T-shirt) that is LOL funny. (Wait for it.) After hearing it you will never picture the gingerbread man the same way again! And yet Booker’s range is such that in the same speech, he assuredly shifts from hilarity to seriousness (and then back again) when he asks one of Fat Ham’s foundational questions: “What if you imagine the world differently?”
Larry’s sister, Opal (Gaelyn D. Smith), the Ophelia character, reeks of resentment at her mother, Rabby, who forced her into a dress instead of her typical pants and hoodie outfit. She nails teen angst and fierce protectiveness for her brother Larry and friend Juicy. I had no doubt that she would have either one’s back.
Finally, Rabby (Kelli Blackwell), Larry and Opal’s mom, is endearing and maddening in equal measure. She fully embodied the Black Church Lady found in any Black community. As an aside, I saw Blackwell in Clyde’s earlier this year and I’m dumbstruck by her talent, as her physicality is completely transformed here.
The entire crew deserves a shoutout for excellence in sound, set, lighting, illusion, and props. Kudos in particular to costume designer Danielle Preston. Opal’s dress was a true frock: frilly, silly, lacy, flimsy, and ultra-feminine, the type of outfit Opal wouldn’t even don to play a southern belle on Halloween. Of course, Opal’s combat boots added the sort of flair that Opal would appreciate. Tedra’s jeans cut-offs were barbeque-perfect, exactly what she would wear because she is unashamed to show off her body and is proud of it. Juicy’s black T emblazoned with the words Mama’s Boy framed in a heart of silver glitter under a sheer short-sleeve top, with silver jewelry and black boots, read soft, sexy, sensitive, and smart, mirroring his qualities.
Even after enjoying seconds, I know I won’t be able to resist returning to Studio for another serving. Fat Ham is just that good.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
EXTENDED: Fat Ham plays through January 14, 2024, in the Mead at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($35–$84, with low-cost options and discounts available), go online or call the box office at 202-332-3300.
The program for Fat Ham is online here.
COVID Safety: All performances are mask recommended. Studio Theatre’s complete Health and Safety protocols are here.
Fat Ham by James Ijames
Marquis D. Gibson as JUICY; Tanisha Gary as TEDRA; Greg Alverez Reid as REV/PAP; Gallon D. Smith as OPAL; Matthew Elijah Webb as LARRY; Kelli Blackwell as RABBY, Thomas Walter Booker as TIO.
Directed by Taylor Reynolds; Set design, Jean Kim; Costume Designer, Danielle Preston; Lighting Designer, Minjoo Kim; Sound Designer/Composer, Sinan Refik Zafar; Props Designer, Deb Thomas; Illusion Consultant, Ryan Phillips; Fight Choreographer, Gerrard Alex Taylor; Choreography Consultant, Tony Thomas; Intimacy Choreographer, Dane Figueroa Edidi; Dramaturge, Adrien-Alice Hansel; Production Stage Manager, Lauren Pekel; Director of Production, Jeffery Martin; Technical Director, Christopher McDonnell.