Why you should see the Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'Fat Ham'
This play is a comedic send-up of Shakespeare's famous tragedy.
Who’s ready for a feast? The grill’s fired up and a celebration is underway at The Public Theater, where James Ijames’s Fat Ham is having its live, New York premiere through July 17. This send-up of Shakespeare’s Hamlet substitutes a Black, queer college kid named Juicy for the Danish prince. They both have similar ambitions of revenge — maybe.
Knowing Hamlet isn’t necessary to understand Fat Ham: Ijames’s play is similar enough that Hamlet fans will find familiar themes, and different enough that Hamlet haters won’t feel like they’re slogging through English class again. This version is raucous. It’s funny. It’s gay. There’s food and disco music. Intrigued yet? Read more about what is to be (or not to be) expected from Fat Ham.
Fat Ham is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Fat Ham had its world premiere in 2021, though it wasn’t a traditional premiere. With most live theatre still on pause, Wilma Theater in Philadelphia filmed Fat Ham outside — making the backyard-barbecue setting even more realistic — and streamed the performance. Critics praised the show highly. The New York Times review reads, “‘Fat Ham’ refuses the tropes of Black suffering even as it engages the seriousness of the Shakespeare. It is the rare takeoff that actually takes off — and then flies in its own smart direction.”
Just over a year after this premiere, and three days before Fat Ham started performances at the Public, Fat Ham followed up on its critical success by winning the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. What a piece of work is Ham!
The show is based on Hamlet.
Fat Ham is a very loose adaptation of the age-old Hamlet tale. The basic setup is the same: In both shows, a young man’s father has died, and his uncle has married his mother. The father’s ghost visits his son and demands revenge, which Hamlet/Juicy plans to get.
There are some key differences, though. For one, the family in Fat Ham is a Southern Black family in the present day, rather than 16th-century Danish royalty (though if you asked Rev, Juicy’s uncle, he’d argue that he’s the king of the grill). All of Fat Ham is set at Rev and Tedra’s (Juicy’s mom) wedding reception, a backyard barbecue hastily planned after a courthouse marriage. And Juicy, unlike Hamlet, has second thoughts about his father’s revenge plot.
Within this new setting, there are still plenty of subtle nods to Hamlet, particularly through some of the characters’ names. Tio is the stand-in for Horatio, Opal for Ophelia, and Larry for Laertes. There are also a couple puns on Shakespeare’s most famous Hamlet lines: When Rev declares that the key to delicious smoked ribs is a flavorful rub, it’s the perfect moment for Juicy to say, with a wink, “Ah, there’s the rub.”
Fat Ham is funny.
Yes, Hamlet is one of the most famous tragedies of all time, but this isn’t your typical Hamlet. You’ll be laughing out loud for Fat Ham‘s entire 90 minutes. The barbecue is far from the only roast happening in this play — the characters trade digs at each other at warp speed. Family members embarrass each other as only family can do. Even Hamlet-esque talk of tragedy gets a lift — Opal imagines her ideal death (getting sucked down the toilet, a ridiculous image in itself that also evokes Ophelia’s drowning) as a “kind of waterslide.”
There’s also a running gag about the legitimacy of Juicy’s college education, which is fully online. The sticking point for them is that Juicy is “going to school on a laptop,” to which he retorts, “It’s a desktop!” That would have been funny even before the pandemic moved everything (including the world premiere performance of this play) online, but it’s even more ironic now. If anything, it’s another Shakespeare parallel — Shakespeare had lots of prophecies in his plays, and this bit is Ijames’s own kind of prophecy.
The actors interact with the audience.
Lots of Shakespeare plays include asides, where a character turns to say a line or two to the audience that the other characters in the scene can’t hear. Fat Ham does this and then some. Juicy delivers full-on monologues to us (some pulled right from Hamlet), and in a twist on Shakespeare, they know he’s doing it — his mom and dad will ask “What you tell them?” after Juicy spills a story to us that they can’t hear. Nearly all the actors share a knowing look with an audience member here and there, too.
At the Public production, Fat Ham is performed with audiences on three sides of the stage, and the people in the front row sit on assorted plastic chairs (with cushions) right on the grass-covered stage. This is a family cookout, and we’re all guests at the party.
Fat Ham explores themes of queerness, masculinity, and violence.
Ijames brings a whole new perspective to the Hamlet tale, often pushing directly back on that tale. Violence is a major theme of both plays, but it’s the noblest, most ideal solution for Hamlet. Juicy isn’t as on board with that. Rev is an angry, violent men that Juicy never really liked, but so was his dad. And he knows that Black and gay stories often end in tragedy, and he doesn’t want to continue that cycle.
Tio says as much at the beginning, and Juicy takes it to heart: “Your Pop went to jail, his Pop went to jail, his Pop went jail, his Pop went to jail, and what’s before that? Huh? Slavery. It’s inherited trauma. You carrying around your whole family’s trauma, man. And that’s okay. You okay. But you don’t got to let it define you.”
But Juicy’s also caught in a bind. His family mocks him as “soft” because he’s queer and thoughtful, and performing violence would prove them wrong. Meanwhile, Larry, a closeted soldier, has the opposite problem: He’s proven his strength to his family, but he wants his softness back. Ijames’s play explores, with fantastic depth, how toxic masculinity breeds violence and the value of both “hardness” and “softness” in the male and female characters.
It’s not a musical, but there is music.
There are five songs featured in Fat Ham, and they’re all bops. The Public production opens with a snippet of Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration,” setting the tone for the wedding reception/backyard barbecue that’s about to take place. Later on, Rev, in peak suburban dad form, jams out to Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” while at the grill.
And right before the events of Fat Ham, Tedra bought a karaoke machine “on sale on the Amazons,” so you know they’re going to break that out for the party. You probably don’t ever want to see your mom perform an over-the-top, sexy rendition of Crystal Waters’s “100% Pure Love” (and neither does Juicy), but it’s a hoot from the audience. Soon enough, Juicy takes the mic and unleashes an anguished performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” that brings down the house.
And after all that, the Public production ends with a disco-inspired dance party to Alex Newell’s “Kill the Lights” and an epic costume reveal. How does Hamlet — even a funny version — end up there? We can’t spoil that for you; you’ll have to see the show to find out.