“Fat Ham” Glitters Gloriously on Broadway

Marcel Spears and Billy Eugene Jones in Broadway’s Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Broadway Theatre Review: Broadway’s Fat Ham

By Ross

Rising up from the dead, in a matter of speaking, after playing to acclaim at The Public Theatre downtown, playwright James Ijames’s Fat Ham has opened on Broadway and that is a just cause for a glitter ball celebration. This smart and sly backyard BBQ reformation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not simple in any way, shape, or form. It’s breathtakingly brilliant and funny; not a reassignment at all like that brilliantly orchestrated Death of a Salesman that also opened on Broadway this season. That revival wisely and wonderfully uncovered that classic play from a new vantage point, that of the Black Man’s experience inside a twisted American Dream. It shifted its view, elevating and expanding Miller’s vision exponentially while staying firmly rooted in the actual text. This “revenge is mad hard” restructuring that is Fat Ham takes on the abstract beams of structure in an equally brilliant way, but replants and reforms the ideas exponentially, baking in the various juices of a whole new sauce in a manner that is absolutely delicious.

Strongly and intuitively directed with style by Saheem Ali (LCT’s The Rolling Stone), Fat Ham wants to unpack some very modern ideas around toxic masculinity and gender stereotypes, peppered with the life experiences of being a Black queer man who doesn’t and doesn’t always want to live up to the expectations of his paternal role models. As a Juicy Hamlet, Marcel Spears (CSC’s Othello), with a wise wink and an eye-roll, finds himself orchestrating and organizing a backyard BBQ all in order to celebrate his mother’s far-too-quick wedding to his father’s brother, after his problematic father’s untimely death in jail. Juicy isn’t exactly mourning the man who is his father as he hangs up backyard lights to create a festive mood, as Pap wasn’t exactly a good man to the “soft” Juicy. But the idea that his mother, Tedra, portrayed enthusiastically by Nikki Crawford (Woolly Mammoth’s Fairview), has exchanged one bad man for another, his uncle, Rev, brutally portrayed by the wonderful Billy Eugene Jones (Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing), stings the gentle conflicted soul of Juicy in a way that almost stuffs him into passivity.

(L to R): Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Benja Kay Thomas, Marcel Spears, Adrianna Mitchell, and Calvin Leon Smith in Broadway’s Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus.

All of this Shakespearian drama rings true and clear, but what Ijames (Kill Move Paradise) has done with this brilliantly crafted play is to take those cornerstones of tragedy and angst, and elevate them up above the split-level Black man’s suburban experience, and infuse it all with the aroma of hilarity and wise wit. It’s a complex layering that unleashes so much flavor around being queer, Black, and soft in modern-day America that’s it’s almost too tasty to digest simply. The third eye is opened, and the fourth wall is shattered, time and time again, as the party celebrating the nuptials is darkened and enlightened by the ghostly return of Pap, also dynamically portrayed by Jones. Tio, ridiculously well played by the brilliant Chris Herbie Holland (Berkeley Rep’s White Noise), is the first to see the return of Pap, as he watches over the suburban castle walls like the good friend he is. But he’s not the last.

But unlike the long-winded Hamlet, we don’t have to hold our collective breath too long for the ghost of Pap to reemerge, most wonderfully, from a festive pile of decorations, thanks to some fine illusions work done by Skylar Fox (Broadway’s Harry Potter…). He pops up in a cloud of BBQ smoke, tasking his son with the avenging of his death. In what is a beautifully witty twist of the writing pen, Juicy is by no means a prince, but he is heir to the barbecue and butcher business throne that Uncle Rev will now take over, since Juicy seems disinterested, and more aligned with getting an online degree in human resources. He’s not the knife-wielding type that takes joy in the slaughtering of pigs, let alone the murder of his Uncle, even if that ghostly presence convinces Juicy that Rev is the one responsible for his death. The revenge murder, Juicy tells himself, is his chance to prove something; to his father, his uncle, his mother, and to himself, that he is more than the “weak” and soft” queer man they see and look down upon. He is much more, but only if he can muster up the anger and energy to do the deed set out before him.

(L to R, clockwise): Calvin Leon Smith, Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Benja Kay Thomas, Adrianna Mitchell, and Marcel Spears in Broadway’s Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus.

We feel his emotional discomfort and anger, layered on by a lifetime of abuse, trauma, and betrayal by a family that is baked in some pretty dysfunctional agendas. But Ijames has found his way to navigate the dilemma with plenty of strong slices of comedy and smart asides directed straight out into the play’s adoring audience. We collectively get behind the tender soul of Juicy, seeing his struggle, yet wanting an outcome that brings punishment to the Uncle but somehow sidesteps all the deadly tragedy that Shakespeare found necessary. Yet we wonder if that is possible. Much like its cast of characters.

Other guests arrive, as we knew they would, bringing into focus the different Hamlet layers, while also holding our hearts close to who might be the doomed Ophelia in this formulation (I must admit I held my breath at one point wondering and hoping that a brutal tragedy was about to take on another death). The family friend by the name of Rabby, beautifully played by Benja Kay Thomas (ATC’s Halfway Bitches…) stomps her way in, taking up as much space and air as her big Mama hat, thanks to the smart costuming by Dominique Fawn Hill (Portland Center Stage’s Rent). Pulled along, she brings her two children; the rebellious Opal, deliciously portrayed by Adrianna Mitchell (NYTW’s runboyrun), and the dutiful, uniformed Larry, dynamically played by Calvin Leon Smith (Amazon’s “The Underground Railroad“), who fill out the roster on more levels than one could imagine. Their connections to Juicy are brilliantly nuanced; becoming the sauce that makes this meal utterly delicious and textured. The pack unpacks the complex ideas of generational trauma, the emotional costs connected to internalized shame, and the pain behind hiding one’s true authentic self. These three, plus the wonderful return of Tio, unearth chaos and tender connection in abundance, bringing this piece of meat forward beyond any expectations that one could have when walking into this 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Adrianna Mitchell and Benja Kay Thomas in Broadway’s Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus.

With lines and passages from Shakespeare’s Hamlet snuck in most beautifully, spoken directly into a karaoke microphone after a game of charades, aimed to illicit a guilty reaction from the Rev, Fat Ham finds its way through all the nods to the great play, while avoiding all the landmines planted in the backyard. It invites complete compassion for the young and bullied Juicy, as he does an internalized battle against his father’s brutality, his Uncle’s savage bullying, and his mother’s beautiful inability to both find security in her own life while protecting her son from the birthright of violence that lives in their pseudo-royal butchering bloodline. Juicy must find his own way through, living up to his own morality and all that inherited trauma that makes it all so difficult. Even as he makes mistakes along the way the cause pain in his world of love.

Flavored with the perfect lyrical blending of humor and authenticity, Fat Ham and its cast deliver forth a meal that is miraculously delicious. On a perfectly thought-out set designed by Maruti Evans (LCT’s At the Wedding) with a devilishly good lighting design by Bradley King (Broadway’s Hadestown) and a solid sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman (Broadway’s Cost of Living), the play brings Hamlet to the party and lets its Shakespearian framework soar as high as Tio’s brilliant storytelling. It serves us hilarity and humanity in abundance, while never losing sight of its strong message about the Juicy strength of what it means to embrace who we truly are. So now let us all rejoice in the party that has been uniformly hidden, and fire forth the glitter in celebration of all that is inside Fat Ham.

Adrianna Mitchell, Chris Herbie Holland, and Marcel Spears in Broadway’s Fat Ham. Photo by Joan Marcus.


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