Count on a play winning a Pulitzer Prize days before beginning New York performances to ramp up not just anticipation but also, let’s face it, expectations.
So it goes for Fat Ham, a broad and rollicking riff on Hamlet at The Public Theater. Running 90 unbroken minutes, it is by turns hilarious, chaotic and weirdly lovely — like when a young man touches another and tells him: “You feel like a fabric that cost too much.” In the end, the play isn’t all that deep, but it bursts with so much heart you leave with a grin on your face.
Playwright James Ijames thumbs his nose at famous words of wisdom — “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” — from Shakespeare’s classic about a pouty prince that ends with a massive body count. Ijames borrows big-time for the bones of his work, and he threads direct quotes (“Ah, there’s the rub,” among them) into the script.
The author also lends his own distinct point of view for his contemporary update. This slice of life leans hard into comedy, not tragedy, as it ponders big things that matter: personal identity, sexuality, transparency, living out loud.
The setting for the play — seen last year in a filmed production by the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia — is a backyard cookout at a modest house in the South. A standing wreath suggests a memorial, but cheery balloons hint at something lighter. It’s both: There’s been a death followed lickety-split by "I do"s.
Juicy (Marcel Spears), a queer Black college kid who’s often called out for being “soft,” is reckoning with how his widowed mom, Tedra (Nikki Crawford), married his uncle, Rev (Billy Eugene Jones), a week after his father, Pap (Jones, again), died. Pap, a butcher and by all accounts a horror, was shanked while incarcerated for murder. Details of what drove him to homicide are excessive enough to make you tune out.
Pap’s ghost soon pops up and orders Juicy to avenge his murder, which Rev arranged. Each guest at the party has a passing resemblance to Shakespeare’s original characters (at least in name), but issues surrounding their sexuality have moved to the foreground.
Tedra’s friend Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas) arrives with her young adult children, Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), whose love for Juicy is complicated, and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), a Marine with conflicted feelings and secrets of his own. Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), Juicy’s BFF, is a trippy motormouth.
Karaoke is sung. Food is served. Games are played. The charade’s the thing when Juicy attempts to expose Rev’s treachery. Suffice it to say that death enters into the proceedings, but Ijames is more interested in exploring life in all its glories and uncertainties.
Director Saheem Ali guides the briskly entertaining production, which is a joint effort between The Public Theater and the National Black Theater. The physical production makes a perfect showcase for the work.
Maruti Evans’s set ingeniously transforms from ho-hum to show palace, Dominique Fawn Hill’s logo T-shirts ("Mama’s Boy" for Juicy) speak volumes, and Stacey Derosier’s lighting beams shadow and dazzle as needed. Skylar Fox’s fun illusions and Lisa Kopitsky’s knockout fight staging merit a mention.
Ali has assembled an excellent cast that doesn’t shy away from getting hammy. That’s fitting for a play in which revenge is a dish best served with ribs.
Photo credit: The cast of Fat Ham at The Public Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus)