Off-Broadway Review FAT HAM (The Public Theater)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on May 27, 2022

in Theater-New York


The Father/Son relationship can often be difficult. It can be hard even when the father and son like, let alone love, each other. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young prince is so enamored of his recently deceased father, King Hamlet, he refers to him as a “Hyperion.” In the same breath, the mourning royal refers to his hated, usurping uncle Claudius as a “satyr,” for just a week after King Hamlet’s death, Claudius married his sister-in-law, Hamlet’s mother (an action viewed as incest from an Elizabethan standpoint). He also quickly installs himself as King, a position that rightfully should have gone to Prince Hamlet upon his father’s passing. So no wonder the young man in black posits if he should be or not. With such untimely life blows to contend with, it’s easy to understand why Hamlet ultimately pursues the path of revenge at his beloved father’s ghostly request. In playwright James Ijames’s new adaptation of Hamlet, titled Fat Ham, and currently running at the Public Theater, that understanding is not so easy or clear.

Benja Kay Thomas

In this Shakespeare-ish story, Elsinore castle is transported to a lovely house in a suburb of 2022 Atlanta (impressive scenic design by Maruti Evans). This home belongs to an upscale African American family. Young Juicy (Hamlet) is not happy. He and his cousin Tio (Horatio) are putting the final touches on the set-up for a backyard wedding reception. His mother Tedra (Gertrude) and his Uncle Rev (Claudius) have been married earlier that day. His father Pap (King Hamlet), the scion of the family’s successful BBQ business, had been murdered in prison just a week before. It’s a small reception, just a few family and close friends. Those close friends soon show up — Rabby (Polonius) and her two children Larry (Laertes) and Opal (Ophelia). And as with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Pap’s ghost shows up in the backyard, first to Tio then to Juicy, revealing that his brother Rev (an actual Reverend) was responsible for him being attacked and murdered in prison, while serving his own sentence for murder. Hardly a Hyperion.

Chris Herbie Holland and Marcel Spears

And Juicy seems to share this opinion of his father. During his exchange with Pap’s ghost, there is no love lost between the two. Juicy is a thick, non-athletic, brainy young man but no pushover. He is often the smartest person in the room and has the requisite side-eye and reading (not with books) ability to prove it. He’s also brave, often speaking truth to power, sometimes to his own detriment. He mostly seems comfortable with his queer identity but not always. And even though he does not like his abusive, shaming father, he decides to begin the journey to avenge his father’s death anyway.  His reason being basically that fathers and sons are stuck with each other. Not quite the same high stakes as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so it’s not exactly clear why Juicy goes to all the trouble. In any event, Shakespeare’s tragedies end in a pile of bodies and this script ends in a body pile of sorts too. It’s not like one of the Bard’s and is actually quite fabulous — though a bit confusing.

Billy Eugene Jones and Marcel Spears

While Hamlet is arguably a play about filial loyalty, playwright James Ijames takes basic plot points and characterizations and transmutes them into a study of masculinity itself — toxic and otherwise. Juicy is referred to as “soft” due to his non-gender conforming ways — he lovingly remembers a Barbie doll his mother gave him as a child that his father took away and burned. The other men in the play, including Tio, are all “hard” — heterosexual or straight-acting, tough, angry and not afraid to go to violence. To write this off as a condemnation of toxic masculinity would be too easy. Set in the African American community, Ijames pointedly takes the opportunity to look at some of the reasons why some men in this culture are attached to such a rigid masculine ideal — not the least of which are the generations of Black men who were not allowed by law or circumstances to fully assume the mantle of manhood.  Thus, accepted wisdom becomes, as a Black man you have to be hard to survive. At one point, Tio astutely tells Juicy that he is carrying the generational trauma of his family. In this play, both Juicy and the playwright try to find ways to release and heal that suffering.

Marcel Spears

Mr. Ijames is a good writer and his ongoing debate about softness vs. hardness is often poignant and insightful. A later scene between soldier Larry and Juicy has some of the most beautiful, surprising and affecting dialogue in the show. Ijames is not trying for a faithful adaptation of Hamlet but uses that story’s spine as a springboard to explore troubling aspects of both family life and societal expectation. As the performance goes on, the play deconstructs itself — becoming conscious that it is a play. At that point, the production joyously frees itself from any theatrical restraints or expectations, just as Juicy is hoping to do in his own life.

The cast of the New York premiere of Fat Ham

Director Saleem Ali has chosen an almost cartoony approach to stage the proceedings. He keeps the performances mostly at a broad, fast-moving, farcical pace — even though the play is not a farce. Luckily, the production also boasts a cast of wonderful actors who ground the nearly stereotypical personas in real human beings. Marcel Spears is equal parts perceptive, moving and slyly funny as the young man at the center of all the drama, Juicy. Billy Eugene Jones excels as both Pap and Rev, brimming with charms, threats, smarts and good looks. Ijames has made the inspired choice to centralize the role of Gertrude, here named Tedra, so we learn much more about her and her relationships. Nikki Crawford stuns in this tour-de-force role. She fully embraces this middle-aged banjee girl, giving her all the requisite flava while revealing a deeply loving, caring but very pragmatic woman. As the tightly wound Larry, Calvin Leon Smith gives a riveting performance. His journey illustrates Ijames’s point about the pitfalls of inauthentic “hardness.” Chris Herbie Holland hilariously plays the out-there comic relief, Tio, who is actually smart. His monologue about realizations he made while high on marijuana almost stops the show. As the feuding mother and daughter, Benja Kay Thomas and Adrianna Mitchell comically get on each other’s nerves as they struggle to love and understand each other, just like a real mother and daughter. Plus, Ms. Mitchell delivers the kick-ass, black girl magic version of Ophelia the world has been waiting for.

The cast of the New York premiere of Fat Ham

There’s much more than a BBQ going on in Juicy’s backyard. It’s a party, an exploration, a revelation and a ghostly visitation. Like any big spread at a cookout, it looks great but turns out some of the dishes are hit and miss. Yet for The Pubic Theater’s production of Fat Ham, that’s ok. Because what matters is the experience – not the potato salad.

Chris Herbie Holland, Adrianna Mitchell, Benja Kay Thomas, and Calvin Leon Smith

photos by Joan Marcus

Marcel Spears and Adrianna Mitchell

Fat Ham
The Public’s Anspacher Theater
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
opened May 26, 2022 | ends on June 19, 2022 EXTENDED to July 3, 2022
Tues-Sun at 8; Sat & Sun at 2
for tickets, call 212.967.7555 or visit The Public

Billy Eugene Jones and Nikki Crawford

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