Imagine Hamlet as a Gay, Black Kid Living in the American South

Shakespeare, I dare say, would be tickled by the creative freedom with which playwright James Ijames approaches his retelling.

Joan Marcus
Marcel Spears in ‘Fat Ham.’ Joan Marcus

“This ain’t Shakespeare,” playwright James Ijames writes about “Fat Ham” in his playbill note. “Don’t get me wrong. I love Shakespeare. This just ain’t him.” 

In many ways, though, it is. “Fat Ham” would be a near-identical retelling of one of Shakespeare’s seminal works if Hamlet was a “thicc,” gay, black kid named Juicy who could crush a Capri Sun in five seconds flat. 

The piece is set in the American South, in a sort of liminal space between past and present. Our brooding anti-hero, brought to life with irony and poise by Marcel Spears, is facing an impossible, if familiar, set of circumstances. His uncle Rev, played with charisma and intensity by Broadway veteran Billy Eugene Jones, has just killed his father and wifed up his mother, the sparkling Nikki Crawford. Before their backyard-barbecue wedding reception, Juicy’s late father appears to him and … well, you probably know the rest. 

“You ain’t been dead a week and you ALREADY haunting me,” Juicy says, “so I know, there must be something you need.”

“You know what it’s ’bout,” his Pap says. “Get it done.”

Rev, Juicy, and his mom are joined in the festivities by family friends Larry, Opal, and their mother, Rabby. Larry and Opal are stuck in cycles of their own, with Larry forced into the Marines and Opal into a dress by their domineering mom. As the younger generation laments their varying situations, Juicy “ponders” duty, identity, and the meaning of life. 

It’s a fated game of charades that brings the show to a head. “The play’s the thing,” Juicy mutters with a wink as he writes out his clue, and slips it into a bowl like a time-bomb. During his turn, he points to his uncle, miming, “The Preacher Killed the Cook.” All of the action that unfolds from that point on is his fault, and he knows it. 

Juicy, like Hamlet, is at war — with others and with himself. Although sensitive and warm, he can also be calculating and cruel. Will he arrest his family’s cycles of violence and harm through tenderness and softness, or will he kill his uncle? “What he thinks is your weakness is gonna save you, Juicy,” Opal implores. Her message is clear: Goodness can win, if you let it. 

Shakespeare, I dare say, would be tickled by the creative freedom with which Mr. Ijames approaches his retelling. Nothing is off-limits. Ghostly apparitions, and end-of-show resurrection? Sure. Fourth-wall-shattering soliloquies, encouraging audience involvement? Why not? A choreographed dream sequence to Juicy’s karaoke performance of “Creep”? Of course. A gay Marine performing a drag number? Naturally. The show would be incomplete without it. 

A flamboyant, almost interactive set by Maruti Evans perfectly serves the Anspacher Theater, featuring the image of a modest ranch house and a large deck built on the turf-covered stage. The first row of the audience is seated on lawn chairs. A smoker billows, veiling the theater in haze. A colorful wreath that reads, “In Loving Memory of ‘Pap’ Wayman Johnson” sits at center, pulling focus. 

The costumes and lighting are colorful and sharp, aiding in the robust development of each character. The technical elements, when integrated with the performances and writing by the Public Theater’s associate artistic director, Saheem Ali, mirror the fantastical world that Mr. Ijames has devised.

In the midst of this color and light, you’re tempted to forget that Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” ends in tragedy and death. The anti-hero feigns madness. King Claudius and Queen Gertrude are killed. So is Laertes. So is Hamlet. 

Luckily for us, “Fat Ham” isn’t a tragedy. It’s a joy. 

The New York Sun

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