James Ijames shares the ingredients from his life that make up 'Fat Ham'

This interview is part of New York Theatre Guide's Road to the Tonys series on artists whose unique or long journeys with their show culminated in a nomination.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

As professed by one of the characters in Fat Ham, a play set at a Southern cookout awash with the aroma of BBQ ribs, the key to tasty barbecue is a perfectly spiced rub. The same can be said of theatre. A play needs spice — full-bodied characters, sizzling tension, delicious performances and visuals — to be something audiences want to sink their teeth into.

Playwright James Ijames has proven he's nailed that recipe, having followed up his 2022 Pulitzer Prize win for Fat Ham with a Best Play Tony Award nomination for the show's Broadway debut in March. Ijames's story flips Shakespeare's Hamlet on its head, following a queer Black student named Juicy tasked with getting revenge on his uncle for his dad's murder. Like Hamlet, Juicy is introspective and preoccupied with his purpose in the world. Unlike Hamlet, Juicy isn't really down to kill anybody while a family party's going on. Instead of tragedy, Juicy engages in comedy, charades, and karaoke while he figures out what to do instead.

On paper, Hamlet with humor and music sounds like an unusual mix of ingredients. So what's the secret sauce that makes Fat Ham work? A touch of the personal. Ijames was quick to confirm that "very little" of the plot reflects his own life (luckily), but he and Juicy share the same Southern roots.

"I grew up in a house that looked a lot like the house that's on stage," Ijames said. "I grew up in a big family that's loud and likes to play games and loves to cook outside. My great-grandmother, when I was young, would actually cook Sunday dinner outside in the summer because it was too hot in the house. Cooking outside is something that's always just been a big part of my life."

Hamlet didn't come into the mix of Ijames's life until college, when he performed in a student-directed, abridged production of the show. To him, Hamlet's story resonated immediately with his upbringing. "He feels like an outsider," Ijames explained. "I grew up in the South and I grew up queer, and so you understand characters that sit just outside of what people expect, what was typical. Hamlet felt that way. Making him Black, making him queer, making him Southern just didn't feel like a stretch."

With years' worth of inspiration in tow, Ijames set out to fashion it all into a play about eight years ago. He originally set Fat Ham on a Southern pig farm, but ultimately decided that the act of cooking and grilling meat — so familiar to him from his childhood dinners — adequately captures the "bellicose" world of Hamlet in the context of Shakespeare's play.

Ijames did pepper in one ultraspecific aspect of his life into Fat Ham — a showstopping monologue, from Juicy's party-happy cousin Tio, references a real-life video game involving throwing snowballs at a gingerbread man, which Ijames once played "constantly for, like, a year." But ultimately, more than any aspect of Ijames's real-life journey, the key ingredient to Fat Ham's resonance is that it provides onstage representation for Black, queer, and Southern communities, which he didn't grow up with.

"There are a lot of queer people that live in the South — there are a lot of people that are surviving down there," Ijames said. "If I can give them a mirror of what their life is, that means a lot to me because I didn't have any mirrors. I grew up and I was like, I hope I can make a few before this is all said and done."

Read more Road to the Tonys interviews with 2023 Tony Award nominees.

Photo credit: James Ijames. (Photo by Ashli Owens)

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