By Samuel L. Leiter . . .
Before this year, there were only three plays that won a Pulitzer Prize before being produced in New York: The Kentucky Cycle in 1992, Anna in the Tropics in 2003, and Water by the Spoonful in 2012. Joining that select group this month is James Ijames’s Fat Ham, a parodic, farcical, yet essentially serious refashioning of Hamlet as a Black family comedy. It was first produced by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre as a filmed production in 2021.
Abetted by several amusingly surprising jeux de théâtre, Ijames uses key features of Shakespeare’s plot to rub often tasteless language and behavior into the play’s every crevice in order to cook up some zesty wedding dishes served steaming hot from the smoker. Ah, there’s the rub, as the Hamlet character, Juicy (Marcel Spears), would say.
For much of its hour and forty minutes, Fat Ham, vividly staged by Saheem Ali, seems dangerously close to being a mashup of Shakespeare, an SNL skit, and Tyler Perry stereotypes, with the dramatis personae reduced to eight, each considerably exaggerated for comic effect. The black-garbed Juicy (one of his shirts says “Mama’s Boy” in pink sequins), like Usher in Broadway’s A Strange Loop, is fat (at least in this production), Black, and queer. This sensitive Juicy, who calls himself an “empath,” also often breaks the fourth wall—those soliloquies, y’know. His best buddy is Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), his porn-addicted, weed-smoking, philosophically-inclined cousin, based on Horatio.
Claudius (Billy Eugene Long) is the toxically masculine Rev, who had his equally toxic brother, Pap (also Mr. Jones), “shanked” in prison, where he was jailed for slicing off the head of a restaurant worker. Why? Bad breath. Worse, the killing “got blood all over the pulled pork.” Within a week of Pap’s death, Rev not only took over Pap’s restaurant, but married his trashy, red-hot wife, Tedra (Nikki Crawford)—the Gertrude role—who has no trouble telling her own son people would pay “good money for an ass like that.” The facts of Pap’s death are disclosed to Juicy by Pap’s ghost, who first appears covered in a sheet-like calico tablecloth, raging for his son to take revenge.
Ophelia is now Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), a lesbian more comfortable in pants and a hoodie than the frilly dress her mother makes her wear, although she pairs it with sneakers. (Kudos to Dominique Fawn Hill for her satirical costumes.) Polonius has been replaced by Opal’s mother, Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), a hilariously overdressed church lady, while Laertes is transformed into Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), a Marine (in full dress uniform), secretly in love with Juicy. Often laconic, Larry is revealed in the unexpected epilogue to have a much glitzier, sequined side, bringing the show to a flashy, hand-clapping musical climax.
Everything transpires on the back porch and patio of Juicy’s family home (designed by Maruti Evans), part of whose interior can be seen through sliding glass doors. All the action has been compressed to take place during the tackily decorated wedding banquet, which occupies most of the stage time. Both karaoke and charades are included, the latter serving as Hamlet’s “Mousetrap.”
Everyone is over-the-top in one way or the other. The ample-bosomed Tedra, for example, dressed in tight, cut-off denim short-shorts, not only twerks for Rev’s ogling pleasure, but, lying on her back, assumes a series of poses easily worth an “X” rating. Nor does Ijames’s raunchy language hold any bars when it comes to mirroring Black dialect expressiveness, including the go-to n-word, the playwright’s version ending in “ga” rather than “ger.” Anyway, when Pap says “motherfucker,” it makes sense, since, as he insists to Juicy, “He’s literally fucking your mother.”
Within all the broad shenanigans, Tio reminds Juicy of how difficult it is to continue a family’s cycle of trauma, which, in Juicy’s case, goes back to generation upon generation of men being imprisoned—all the way to the time of slavery. Juicy has plenty of reason to carry out Pap’s commission. Rev’s not only had his father killed, but he sucker-punches Juicy, and also spends the tuition money Juicy needs for his online University of Phoenix course in “Human Resources” so he can remodel the house’s pink bathroom. (The University of Phoenix may ponder revenge for being made a comic butt.)
Juicy’s struggle to surmount this cycle of violence creates the chief thematic tension, during which he even gets to speak some of Shakespeare’s lines. One is the speech in which Hamlet lays out the plot to trap his father’s murderer (“I have heard that guilty creatures”); another is the “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy. The latter is delivered with a hand mike, a required prop in plays like this. Despite Juicy’s expectation that, based on the past (“this is a tragedy. We tragic”), death should come to all those present—as in Shakespeare—the drama is resolved in peace and love. As Tio declares in a virtuosic, show-stopping monologue about fellatio with a gingerbread man (don’t ask), we should “choose pleasure over harm.”
Fat Ham is expertly performed all the way down the line, each character milked for their heightened characteristics. Its flamboyant style is more fun to contemplate than the serious themes that want to be aired; many surely will find much to enjoy here without overly cogitating about its ideas. Many others, I suspect, will wonder just what about Fat Ham makes it worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Let the controversy begin! The readiness is all.
Photos: Joan Marcus