Sure, his uncle killed his father and is about to marry his mother, but Juicy, the big Black queer Southerner at the center of “Fat Ham,” would prefer to forget about the revenge his father’s ghost is urging on him. At one point, he sits in the backyard with his two cousins, and they take turns sucking the hydrogen out of a smiley balloon, so that they can speak in goofy little high-pitched voices.
“Fat Ham” is now opening on Broadway after its two-month run last summer at the Public Theater. It hasn’t changed much, but it’s better. It has the same design and stagecraft, but bigger and more elaborate to fit the larger Broadway stage; it presents the same actors, except their performances are crisper and more confident. It is essentially the same production, but I enjoyed it more on second viewing. That’s because I focused more on scenes like the one with the smiley balloon. Sure, “Fat Ham” won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the play is inspired by “Hamlet,” loosely adopting the plot and even using some verbatim soliloquys from Shakespeare’s tragedy. But I could forget about the expectations that were raised (and dashed) by these prestige signifiers the first time around, and now relish the silly, sexy and surreal moments that director Saheem Ali make pop in James Ijames’s raunchy, freewheeling comedy. Even the serious concerns, peeking out from beneath the playfulness, have more impact.
“Fat Ham” takes place in the backyard in Juicy’s family home in South Carolina, where the wedding reception will be held. Juicy (Marcel Spears) is putting together the decorations, when the ghostly Pap (Billy Eugene Jones) appears. Before tasking him with avenging his murder, Pap immediately starts to bicker with and belittle his only son, making fun of the “little online school” (the University of Phoenix) that Juicy attends.
“You always said go to college.” Juicy defends himself.
“Howard, Morehouse, hell, Caldwell Community College,” Pap replies. “You going to school on a laptop,” he sneers.
“Desk top!” Juicy corrects.
This is funny, of course, but it also introduces several layers that are threaded throughout the play. Pap’s mention of historically black colleges is one of many cultural reference points that root the play in the Southern Black experience. These include substantive issues that the playwright sees as endemic to the community: There’s talk of diabetes (“the suga”), and about a friend who has overdosed (alas, his name is Yorick.)
Pap’s attitude towards education is an intriguing contrast to his usurper, his brother Rev (also portrayed by Billy Eugene Jones), who uses the money meant for Juicy’s education to pay for the wedding. But in all other ways they are both prime examples of toxic masculinity. They dismiss Juicy for being “soft.” This in part means cultured and sophisticated, a dismissive attitude shared by his mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford):
“You watch too much PBS,” Tedra tells him, after he quotes Shakespeare.
“How can one watch too much PBS?” he replies.
But “soft” seems mostly a code word used by homophobes, and one of the playwright’s main concerns is clearly the struggle against hostile attitudes in the Black community towards same-sex love and identity: Three of the eight characters in “Fat Ham” are LGBT. While all eight characters vaguely correspond to characters in “Hamlet” in name (Horatio is Tio; Ophelia is Opal) and general situation, none track very closely to Shakespeare’s work in either character traits or character trajectory.
Indeed, at the end of “Fat Ham,” the Ijames’ characters explicitly rebel against the fate of Shakespeare’s characters. I’ll give no details, except to say it’s a meta-theatrical twist that gave me the most trouble on initial viewing. Ijames has told interviewers his aim is to “disrupt the canon,” but “Hamlet” is not so much disrupted in “Fat Ham” as dropped. The meta noodling also seems intended to contrast the artifice of theater (and especially the standard depiction of Black people on stage) with the reality of (Black) people’s lives — to jar us out of the artificial reality of the play and pretend to offer us a glimpse of their (or even the actors’) “real” lives? But how is that any less of an artifice?
The most persuasive explanation that Ijames offers for the turn that “Fat Ham” takes is that it follows the teachings of the Black church in its resistance to trauma through joy.
There is one character in particular who embodies this approach, in a weird way.
First, it should be said that all seven actors – all but two making their Broadway debuts — bring us joy, because of the power of their performances. Marcel Spears is the character around whom all the others revolve, and if Juicy is a bit of a cypher, Spears’ comic reactions to the other characters help bolster our own. Ten-time Broadway veteran Billy Eugene Jones portrays both Pap and Rev, pig farmer and pit master, who own a barbecue business (making the play’s title a pun.) The actor’s transformation from one brother to the other is impressive, helped by quick change of Dominique Fawn Hill’s arresting costumes. Hill dresses the game Nikki Crawford as Juicy’s mother in scandalously scanty attire during her sexy Karoake rendition of Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love,” much to Juicy’s embarrassment. Benja Kay Thomas is an appropriately stuffy church lady who is friends with Juicy’s family, and the mother of Larry and Opal, all three of whom have secrets juicier than Juicy’s. 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.
But it’s Chris Herbie Holland whose character Tio offers the lesson of turning trauma to joy. A weed-smoking, porno-watching, street philosopher, Tio is one of the co-conspirators along with Juicy and Opa in the smiley balloon moment. He also delivers what is perhaps the single most memorable moment in “Fat Ham,” a long soliloquy (very much not Shakespearean) about a dream encounter that climaxes in, um, sexual congress with a gingerbread man cookie. The dream taught him about life; “You begin to consider what your life would be like if you chose pleasure over harm.”
American Airlines Theater through June 25, 2023.
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $69-$179. Rush tickets through TodayTix: $39
Written by James Ijames
Directed by Saheem Ali
Scenic Design by Maruti Evans; Costume Design by Dominique Fawn Hill; Lighting Design by Bradley King; Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman; Hair and Wig Design by Earon Chew Nealey; illusions design by Skylar Fox
Cast: Nikki Crawford as “Tedra,” Chris Herbie Holland as “Tio,” Billy Eugene Jones as “Rev” and “Pap,” Adrianna Mitchell as “Opal,” Calvin Leon Smith as “Larry,” Marcel Spears as “Juicy,” and Benja Kay Thomas as “Rabby.”
Photographs by Joan Marcus