‘Fat Ham,” this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which opened tonight at the Public Theater, is inspired by “Hamlet,” but it parts ways with the Bard, and not just because of all the partying. Taking place during a Black family’s backyard barbecue in the American South, James Ijames’s play is a sometimes raunchy, sometimes pointed, largely freewheeling comedy, whose characters Karaoke to pop dance hits; watch porn and get high; come out of the closet.
Some may wonder: Is “Fat Ham” on a par with Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” or Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” or Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible?” Actually, none of those plays, now understood to be masterpieces of the American theater, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. As I point out in my guide to theater awards, the Pulitzers have a spotty record for recognizing work that endures.
So it’s best not to dwell on “Fat Ham” having won a Pulitzer; let’s just consider the award terrific marketing for the first ever New York stage production of this play – in fact, the first in-person stage production of it anywhere. Its only previous production, by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater (where Ijames is co-artistic director) was online during the pandemic.
The staging by director Saheem Ali at the Public Theater, in a co-production with the National Black Theater, brings out both what’s most entertaining and most serious about the script, thanks to a great cast and a fine design, with just the right amount of magic — enough to make you want to overlook the play’s shortcomings.
Juicy, the Hamlet character (Marcel Spears), is a queer, fat Black college student, studying Human Resources at an online college. As the play begins, he is putting together the decorations for the wedding reception for his mother Tedra and his uncle Rev, accompanied by his cousin and oldest friend Tio (Chris Herbie Holland); Tio’s the one who watches porn and gets high. Suddenly, Juicy’s dead father, Pap, manifests, covered by a checkered picnic tablecloth (kudos to Skylar Fox for the clever and amusing illusions.) Pap (Billy Eugene Jones) wants to be avenged; he tells his son he was killed in prison, shanked by an inmate on orders of his brother Rev (who is also portrayed by Jones.)
Over the next few scenes, Juicy agonizes a bit over whether to kill his uncle, and tries to determine Rev’s guilt — not by a play-within-the-play but by a game of charades. He even directly recites the “catch the conscience of the king” soliloquy from “Hamlet” before the game. He also recites the “What a piece of work is a man” speech. But the longest soliloquy is an original and hilarious one given by Tio, who recounts an elaborate encounter that climaxes in, um, sexual congress with a gingerbread man cookie, and what that taught him about life; “you begin to consider what your life would be like if you chose pleasure over harm.”
If Tio doesn’t sound much like Horatio, few of the people in this comedy track very closely in either character traits or character trajectory with their corresponding figures from Shakespeare’s tragedy. Tedra (corresponding to Gertrude and portrayed memorably by Nikki Crawford) is Juicy’s mother, not precisely the picture of regal grace during her sexy, scantily clad Karoake rendition of Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love.” Benja Kay Thomas portrays Rabby (corresponding to Polonious) a colorful church lady who is friends with Juicy’s family, and the mother of Larry (Laertes) and Opal (Ophelia.) Calvin Leon Smith portrays Larry as a manly if shell-shocked marine who secretly hankers after Juicy, and harbors an inner fabulousness; Adrianna Mitchell portrays Larry’s sister Opal, who resents being forced to wear a dress and is also not-so-secretly queer. Mother Rabby is oblivious to her children’s secrets; she has her own.
Billy Eugene Jones portrays both Pap and Rev, pig farmer and pit master, which is to say, he has taken over his brother’s barbecue business (making the play’s title a pun.) The actor’s transformation from one brother to the other is impressive, and not just because of cosmetic and costume changes. But as the playwright makes clear, the two men are each in different ways prime examples of toxic masculinity.
It is mostly in Juicy’s dialogues with these men that the playwright weaves into this entertainment his exploration of that toxicity; the men (and some of the women) look down on Juicy for being “soft. We take this to mean childish, unmanly; at one point, Juicy changes into a black shirt with the words written in red glitter “Mama’s Boy.” But it also seems to mean too kind, too intelligent, too sophisticated.
“You watch too much PBS,” Tedra tells him, after he’s riffed on Shakespeare.
“How can one watch too much PBS?” he replies.
“Fat Ham” introduces other cultural touchstones and substantive issues that the playwright also apparently sees, for better or for worse, as endemic to the Black community: There’s talk of diabetes (“the suga”), and about a friend who has overdosed (alas, his name is Yorick.)
But Ijames covers his serious points with a patina of playfulness. Several of Juicy’s monologues that get serious end with another character asking defensively: What you tell them about me?
These metatheatrical antics grow from a few throwaway lines to taking over the plot – or, more accurately, pushing it aside. I won’t go into details, except to say that near the end of “Fat Ham,” Juicy instructs the other characters on how they must behave, “cause this a tragedy. We tragic.” But they resist.
All along, the playwright has not been committed to the story of “Hamlet,” but now he doesn’t even seem committed to his own story. I suppose one could argue that he’s commenting on the contrast between the artifice of theater and the reality of people’s lives in the 21st century, especially Black people’s lives – or, perhaps, on the white (theatergoing) gaze preferring such characters to be sorrowful. But the shifts feel too abrupt, and the whole enterprise too full of silly moments, for the playwright’s ultimate choices to feel like anything more rigorous than his saying: OK, I’ve made my points; I don’t know where to go from here; it’s time to party.
at the Public Theater through July 3, 2022
Runtime: 90 minutes with no intermission
Written by James Ijames
Directed by Saheem Ali
Scenic design by Maruti Evans, costume design by Dominique Fawn Hill, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, hair and wig design by Earon Nealey, prop management by Claire M. Kavanah, illusions design by Skylar Fox, fight direction by Lisa Kopitsky, and choreography by Darrell Moultrie
Cast: Nikki Crawford (Tedra), RJ Foster (Rev/Pap Understudy) , Tanesha Gary (Tedra/Rabby Understudy), Marquis D. Gibson (Juicy/Larry/Tio Understudy), Chris Herbie Holland (Tio), Billy Eugene Jones (Rev/Pap), Alexandria Brienne Lewis (Opal Understudy), Adrianna Mitchell (Opal), Calvin Leon Smith (Larry), Marcel Spears (Juicy), and Benja Kay Thomas (Rabby).