'Fat Ham' review — a smart, savory sendup of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'
Read our four-star review of Fat Ham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamlet adaptation by James Ijames, now at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre through July 2.
If Hamlet were to partake in karaoke, the troubled prince might perform Radiohead’s “Creep.” In James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy Fat Ham, the character Juicy, loosely based on Shakespeare’s forlorn prince, does just that. The rock song’s moody lyrics about searching for masculinity and self-worth are fitting for Hamlet — and his Black, gay derivative.
This riff on the Bard’s tragedy takes place at a backyard barbecue in the South. Juicy (Marcel Spears) and his family are celebrating the nuptials of his mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford) to his Uncle Rev (Billy Eugene Jones), just one week after the murder of his father Pap (also Jones). Sound familiar?
Fat Ham isn’t a scene-for-scene adaptation of the tragedy, though. The 95-minute play begins with Tio (played with hilarity by Chris Herbie Holland) casually watching porn on his cell phone as Juicy resentfully decorates the backyard. The smoking barbecue grill, colorful globe lights, and bunches of balloons look like harbingers of a happy celebration — but Pap’s ghost has other plans.
Pap, dressed in a white suit and covered in a red-checkered tablecloth, appears to Juicy to exhort vengeance. He was shanked in the neck in prison, and Rev orchestrated the murder to gain control of the family barbecue business. Juicy, who is pursuing a degree in human resources, prefers working with people over pigs. And he isn’t sure he’s capable — or willing — to exact bloody revenge.
Juicy sports a bedazzled “Mama’s Boy” shirt, but Tedra, wearing bedazzled booty shorts, is unable to give Juicy the love and support he needs. She makes matters worse when she tells him she spent his college tuition fund on a bathroom renovation.
Under Saheem Ali’s direction, all the characters move between tenderness and toughness with ease. The back and forth is thrilling, and the audience even becomes part of this energy with occasional fourth-wall breaks.
The strongest performances are from the young characters, who have more self-awareness than their Shakespearean counterparts. Spears plays Juicy with a gentle, exacting power that might make the audience think he is capable of butchering his uncle — or maybe he just wants to change the family legacy. Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) is a headstrong Ophelia that moves to the beat of her own drum. Holland gets a scene-stealing soliloquy, in which a stoned Tio recalls receiving fellatio from a gingerbread man while playing a VR game.
The play’s brilliance is in its ability to tie Shakespeare into this contemporary family’s experience, even if the characters don’t see it. When Juicy quotes a line from Romeo & Juliet, Tedra accuses him of watching too much PBS. “If you bring up that dead old white man one mo time…” she warns. There are plenty more references to Hamlet, including the perfectly delivered line “there’s the rub” (pulled from the famous "to be or not to be" monologue) and a brief aside in verse to set up a game of charades. And when Tio tells Juicy their former classmate Yorick overdosed, Juicy cradles a smiley-face balloon instead of a skull.
Throughout the play, others repeatedly call Juicy “tender” and “soft.” “You was powerful when you were a baby,” Rev says. “And you got soft. And you was nothing like your daddy or like me. You was soft. And the men in our family ain’t soft.”
But maybe tender is good. (Tender pork ribs sure are.) Ijames takes Hamlet’s political and social themes and marinates them for a modern audience. There’s no crown to transfer here, just generations of toxic masculinity to pass down and homophobia to unpack.
Fat Ham is less about seeking revenge and more about Juicy winning justice. Spoiler alert: instead of a bloodbath, the play ends with a raucous disco and butterfly-shaped confetti. Now that’s how I like to see Shakespeare.
Photo credit: Marcel Spears (center) and the cast of Fat Ham on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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