Meet the cast of 'Fat Ham' on Broadway
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by James Ijames, which premiered off Broadway last spring, comes to the American Airlines Theatre with all the same actors.
"Hamlet takes place in a high royal court, so they have class and stature to uphold," noted Chris Herbie Holland, an actor in Broadway's Fat Ham, a new play that sends up Shakespeare's revenge tragedy. "We're at a cookout."
Translation: Royal decorum doesn't apply to this cast. In James Ijames's comedy — which won a Pulitzer Prize days before its Off-Broadway debut in 2022 — the action takes place at a modern Black family's barbecue in the South. Hamlet's quest to murder his uncle for murdering his father now includes karaoke, charades, and smoked ribs.
Ijames's take on the story also sees Juicy, the Hamlet figure, consider nonviolent means of justice, fighting stereotypes about Black manhood.
"I didn't see a lot of people of color play parts of Shakespeare on stage when I was first in this country," said director Saheem Ali, who frequently performed Shakespeare in his native Kenya. "I always had a passion to make those stories have as diverse a cast as possible and find new ways of making them feel alive and fresh."
Fat Ham delivers, featuring a seven-strong all-Black cast. The full company of the 2022 production reprise their roles at the American Airlines Theatre from March 21, five of whom are making their Broadway debuts.
The Fat Ham Broadway cast dishes on how their characters mirror and depart from Shakespeare's and which Shakespeare character they'd invite to a cookout. They also share standout moments — comedic and heartfelt — audiences should watch for.
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Marcel Spears leads the Fat Ham cast as Juicy. Juicy read Hamlet in school, so he recognizes the parallels between his situation and Hamlet's. But as a queer Black man, he hopes what's in store for Hamlet might not be the same for him.
Spears on Juicy: Like Hamlet, he's a young man that is plagued with his inner critic, constantly trying to figure out which direction is best for him, trying to find himself. Juicy is, like Hamlet, a sensitive soul — until he isn't. He can be very selfish and careless. There's a deep sense of loneliness, but also this mirth that rests underneath both characters.
Favorite Fat Ham moment: One of my favorite lines is Tedra's, Juicy's mom. She says, "You thick, baby! Juicy! You got boo-tay!" The way she says it makes me laugh on stage every time.
Shakespearean cookout guest: Nick Bottom from Midsummer [Night's Dream] would be a really fun cookout guest. There would be no shortage of entertainment.
Billy Eugene Jones
Broadway veteran Billy Eugene Jones does double duty in Fat Ham as Juicy's ghostly father, Pap, and his uncle, Rev. Ijames gives more depth to Pap than Shakespeare did to the King of Denmark — we learn Pap wasn't quite as noble. And Rev, besides being an actual killer like Hamlet's Uncle Claudius, is also a killer barbecuer.
Jones on Pap and Rev: They're both the same guy, that's my thing. My characters in Fat Ham and in Hamlet are very similar. I play Uncle Claudius, and Claudius is murderous in Hamlet and murderous in Fat Ham. [Rev's] just a little more funny and maybe a little more cruel.
Favorite Fat Ham moment: My favorite line in the play is, "Chile, you ain't gonna kill nobody." We go through life trying to act so tough, and then it's just, "Hey, calm down. We're all here, and we're all going to have a great time." [Unless you're Rev.] If you're Rev, you're going to kill some folks.
Shakespearean cookout guest: Macbeth. You've got to have somebody at the table who can get things done, and so certainly. I need somebody who has a lot of ambition who's on [Rev's] side.
Nikki Crawford brings down the house as Tedra, Juicy's feisty mother based on Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. The cookout doubles as her and Rev's wedding reception, so she's ready to party — especially when the karaoke machine comes out.
Crawford on Tedra: Tedra is very similar to Gertrude, but she's the more exaggerated, urban version of Gertrude. Everything that is insinuated in Hamlet about Gertrude, you see come to life in Fat Ham: her overt sexuality and the fact that she married her brother-in-law shortly after the death of her husband. That says a lot about the type of woman she is!
She's just unabashedly herself. In this version, Tedra just gets to act up and be wild.
Favorite Fat Ham moment: What's really touching to me is the moment between Juicy and I at the end, where she reveals to him how she needs him more, probably, than he needs her — that he's my best friend and my everything and I can't exist without him.
Shakespearean cookout guest: Ophelia. She's so sad and melancholy. If she were to spend just a few hours with these zany characters from Fat Ham, she'd be a lot happier.
Chris Herbie Holland
In Fat Ham, Horatio becomes Tio, Juicy's carefree cousin played by Chris Herbie Holland. He brings zany and sometimes raunchy humor to the proceedings, but he also gives Juicy thoughtful advice and support.
Holland on Tio: I'm the first one that sees the ghost and informs Juicy about it. Horatio is Hamlet's confidante, his best friend. I'm Juicy's best friend and his confidante, and the one who talks him down off the ledge when he feels like the world is becoming too much for him.
Where they [differ] — Tio's living life for the moment. I'm choosing joy, choosing pleasure, and I'm choosing the things that make me happy, whether that's weed or porn or having my philosophies about life. Horatio feels more of an academic.
Favorite Fat Ham moment: Mine probably goes over a lot of people's heads, but it makes me cry every single time I hear it. It's "I want you to be happy, Mama."
Shakespearean cookout guest: Falstaff, because he gets lit. Falstaff getting drunk at an event and talking about his adventures — I would love to just sit at the feet of him and be like, "Yo, what was it like? Tell me everything."
Opal, played by Adrianna Mitchell, is the Ophelia character of Fat Ham, but no one's telling her to "get thee to a nunnery." Opal has a headstrong, combative streak, and she and Juicy are both trying to subvert their parents' expectations.
Mitchell on Opal: She's an Ophelia foil, the antithesis of Ophelia. Ophelia is very passive; there are a lot of men around her who tell her what to do, and we see her demise. But one of my favorite lines from Opal is, "I ain't dying for nobody."
She's a bull in a china shop, she bucks up against whoever people think she should be, and it's exciting to see a female character take up space like that.
Favorite Fat Ham moment: There's a moment when Juicy and Opal get to have their quiet moment away from the family and share the truth about themselves. But it's also really fun — there'll be spotlights and maybe some microphones. It's not what you expect, but it's still a beautiful little scene.
Shakespearean cookout guest: Viola from Twelfth Night. She's gender-bending, she's not conforming to what people think she should be, and that energy would actually be very welcome at this barbecue.
Calvin Leon Smith
Calvin Leon Smith's character, Larry, is Opal's brother, as Ophelia and Laertes are siblings in Hamlet. His standing as a U.S. soldier makes his mother proud, but he wishes he could be less violent and more soft — like Juicy.
Smith on Larry: Laertes was also in the military; he was sent off to school. Larry comes back, and in the modern version, it's written that he has PTSD, as opposed to Laertes, who just has an anger streak.
Favorite Fat Ham moment: Tedra's karaoke moment. Also [a rendition of Radiohead's] "Creep," another karaoke moment. That is one of the moments people are obsessed with.
Shakespearean cookout guest: Othello, because he wasn't around enough of us [Black people], and I think he would really enjoy that and need it.
Benja Kay Thomas
Following her Broadway debut as Phylicia Rashad's understudy in Skeleton Crew last year, Benja Kay Thomas originates her first Broadway role as Rabby, a stand-in for Shakespeare's Polonius. She just wants to pray, eat, and spend some wholesome quality time with family and friends. Of course, that doesn't quite happen.
Thomas on Rabby: Rabby is different from Polonius because she's a female. She has two kids. She's very sharp-witted. Rabby's a little more outspoken, and she's more accepting of her children and not as judgmental.
Favorite Fat Ham moment: One of my favorite moments is the dinner scene when we pray, and it's a real Southern Baptist table, and we're just having so much joy. Another time is at the end. I won't give away the ending, but the end is so much joy.
Shakespearean cookout guest: Othello, because I'm sure he's going to be tall, fine, and handsome. I would also bring Hamlet. I would say, "Nobody is dying in this play! How about that?"
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Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Top image credit: The cast of Fat Ham at The Public Theater off Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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