Broadway Review: FAT HAM (American Airlines)

Post image for Broadway Review: FAT HAM (American Airlines)

by Tony Frankel on April 16, 2023

in Theater-New York


Ah, the Father/Son relationship. Tough when bad and often difficult even when pop and junior love each other. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, adapted with delightful quirkiness into Fat Ham by playwright James Ijames, 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).

Adrianna Mitchell, Chris Herbie Holland, Marcel Spears

Claudius 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 whether 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 Fat Ham, currently running at the intimate American Airlines Theatre, that understanding is not so easy or clear.

Marcel Spears, Billy Eugene Jones

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 Black 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 father Pap (King Hamlet), the heir of the family’s successful BBQ business, had been murdered in prison just a week before. Now, his mother Tedra (Gertrude) and Pap’s brother Uncle Rev (Claudius) have just been married.

Marcel Spears, Adrianna Mitchell

It’s a small reception, just the  family and close friends 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. Pap reveals that — while serving his own sentence for murder (hardly a Hyperion) — his brother Rev (an actual Reverend) was responsible for him being attacked and murdered in prison.

Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Benja Kay Thomas,
Marcel Spears, Adrianna Mitchell, Calvin Leon Smith

And Juicy shares this opinion of his father, yet during his exchange with Pap’s ghost (cloaked in fog and white by costumer Dominique Fawn Hill), 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, with the requisite side-eye and intuitive reading of others 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.

L to R, clockwise: Calvin Leon Smith, Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones,
Benja Kay Thomas, Adrianna Mitchell, Marcel Spears

And even though he does not like his abusive, shaming father, he decides to begin the journey to avenge his Pap’s death anyway. His reason being basically that fathers and sons are stuck with each other. Not quite the same high stakes as Hamlet, so we’re left to wonder if Juicy is just so full of ennui and rage that he’s not thinking straight. In any event, Shakespeare’s tragedies end in a pile of bodies and you’ll get a body pile, too, but it’s not like one of the Bard’s, and is actually quite fabulous — just stick with Ijames as he takes you on his unconventional journey. (While the show is pocked with originality, you may wonder why it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.)

Adrianna Mitchell, Benja Kay Thomas

While Hamlet is arguably a play about filial loyalty, Mr. 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. (Now. he is sucking down juice-boxes as if to quell the fire burning inside.) 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.

Marcel Spears, Calvin Leon Smith

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.

Marcel Spears

Director Saleem Ali has chosen an almost cartoonish approach, keeping his performers 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 into 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. His slow burns to the audience are amazingly effective given how low-key they are. 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 flav-ah while revealing a deeply loving, caring but very pragmatic woman.

Marcel Spears, Nikki Crawford

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.

L to R: Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Benja Kay Thomas, 
Adrianna Mitchell, Calvin Leon Smith with Marcel Spears in front

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 this production of Fat Ham, — which moved from The Public Theater to Broadway — that’s OK. Because what matters is the experience – not the potato salad.

photos by Joan Marcus

Fat Ham
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd St
opened April 12, 2023; ends on June 25, 2023
for tickets, visit Fat Ham

Billy Eugene Jones and Nikki Crawford

Fat Ham
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd St
opened April 12, 2023
limited 14-week run ends on June 25, 2023
for tickets, visit Fat Ham Broadway

Comments on this entry are closed.