Review: Skewering Masculinity, in a Hot and Sizzling ‘Fat Ham'
A modern, comedic retelling of "Hamlet" set at a backyard barbecue.
What would life be like if you chose pleasure over harm in your daily choices?
A young man asks this question near the end "Fat Ham," the Pulitzer Prize winning play by James Ijames, which opened on Broadway Wednesday at the American Airlines Theater. Remember that Tio is high to the gills at the time he has this dream.
In his world, as well as ours, harm and self-harm are serious issues. It's even a classic. The most famous example of it was in "Hamlet" four centuries ago, without the benefit (as we know) from weed.
Tio, a modern-day Horatio (a loyal and hearty friend of the main character), is laid-back and ready to accept anything. He says that he was pampered by a gingerbread woman in his dream.
The same is true for 'Fat Ham,' which is a reworking of 'Hamlet,' and the best way to challenge it by asking the same question but finding different answers. It is a raucous comedy, not a bloodbath in a palace (and Saheem's production was a nonstop delight in itself). This shows that, despite mankind and men's belligerence, there is hope.
Softness is the way out. Juicy, the Hamlet character played by Marcel Spears, is a 'thicc Black mama's son who mourns ambivalently his father's murder and suffers from what Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), diagnoses as inherited traumatic stress. "Your Pop, His Pop, His Pop, His Pop, and What's Before That?" He asks. 'Slavery.'
Juicy's sadness has an immediate cause. In a week after the death of Pap, Juicy's mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford) has remarried - and not to a less bully than Pap’s brother Rev. Under a gingham-patterned tablecloth, Pap's spirit arrives on the wedding day to blame Rev for the crime and inspire Juicy to retaliate. Billy Eugene Jones plays both Rev and Pap. Juicy waffles, whether he is contemplating murder or suicide.
This crowd is used to killing: Pap spent time in prison for slashing a cook from the family barbecue restaurant. Rev shows off his dominance at a backyard barbecue where the action of the play takes place, by loading the smoker with fresh chunks of pig. He does not treat his now-stepson, nephew, any better. Juicy, who considers himself an empath, is called 'You pansy' by Juicy. "Girly ass, puddle of saliva." Tedra is then asked to explain the cost of his online college tuition.
"Fat Ham" is cleverly paralleled with "Hamlet". The barbecue is an accurate translation of the "funeral-baked meats" with which Gertrude, her husband and their new children 'did coldly provide forth the wedding tables'. The melancholy Prince's plot to prove Rev's guilty is not a play to "catch the conscience" of the King, but rather a game. Rabby, the church lady who was once a sarcastic Polonius has been replaced by Adrianna Mitchell and Calvin Leon Smith as her children.
You don't have to draw any parallels to Hamlet to enjoy "Fat Ham," because the differences are more interesting than the similarities. Ijames addresses male violence in the most direct and powerful way in the relationship between Larry & Juicy, recognizing the destruction caused to individuals as the disasters of the entire world.
It's telling, then, that Larry, a Marine who lives at attention and may be suffering from post-traumatic disorder, is living in that way. He speaks in monosyllables, but he becomes emotional when he talks to Juicy. Although their tender scenes do lead to physical confrontation - 'Fat Ham,' after all, is based on tragedy - it is not a fatal sword fight. They both discover that confrontation is a way of opening up, and not just breaking.
So it is with Juicy, Tedra, Opal, Rabby, Tio, and the gingerbreadman. All must learn how to accept love for what it is, and not for what they imagine.
The fact that 'Fat Ham,' despite its often happy and even joyous ending, does not deny the forces which make Hamlet feel equally honest, shows how original and capacious the writing is. It grows the skin from its own necessity, rather than merely burying itself in Shakespeare's. The cast also brings the play to life beautifully.
Spears's minute adjustments of feyness or fierceness hold the entire thing together. In his scenes with Crawford and especially in the one where Tedra begs Juicy not to go insane, he shows us how characters create themselves in real time.
Ali's beautiful contoured staging allows for quiet, profound moments despite its wit and pace. This is a more expansive account, and it's bigger than the film produced by the Wilma Theater 2021, and the stage debut at the Public Theater, last year.
When I say bigger, I'm not just talking about Maruti Evans Broadway-size set with all its Broadway-size surprises or -- must we really? The end has a confetti cannon. It shoots something opposite to artillery. The performances are also bigger. Their frank acknowledgement of the audiences is more sustained and integral.
We are all part of the story. It's not just when Tedra gives us a side-eye or Juicy sings on the proscenium. We need to see what masculinity might look like after experiencing it for centuries as a call-to-arms.
Even seeing "Fat Ham" multiple times is a revelation for me. It achieves one of the main things we expect from theater: that it rehearses, as often as necessary, better methods of being, instead of choosing to not be.