NEW YORK, NY.-
I could begin with the ghost. Or the famous existential question.
But Im not reviewing another run-of-the-mill adaptation of Hamlet; Fat Ham, James Ijames outstanding transformation of Shakespeares tragedy into a play about Black masculinity and queerness, both echoes Hamlet and finds a language beyond it.
So Ill start with a scene that especially evokes this productions charms: In the middle of a backyard barbecue, a group of family members and friends sitting around a table covered with plates of ribs, corn on the cob and biscuits are suddenly bathed in a blue spotlight. They break out into an impressionistic dance (choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie), curling forward and arching backward in slow motion, arms fanning out, then they slump down into their seats and begin headbanging. All the while, our hero, Juicy (Marcel Spears), whom Ijames characterizes in his script as a kinda Hamlet, mournfully croons along to Radioheads Creep.
This is Ijames tongue-in-cheek style of wit: Of course the melancholy prince would have sung Creep had Thom Yorke and his band been around in 17th-century England. Without undermining its drama, Fat Ham pokes fun at the theatricality of Hamlets anguish.
And Saheem Ali, the director of Fat Ham, which opened Thursday at the Public Theater in a co-presentation with the National Black Theatre, can sure throw a party. By adding in the lights and movement, the scene takes on an increased flair. But then again, having directed the similarly vivacious Merry Wives at the Delacorte Theater and Nollywood Dreams at MCC Theater last year, Ali is at his best when given an occasion to celebrate Blackness.
Juicy knows about trauma after all, hes a gay Black man in North Carolina. But his more immediate concern is this barbecue, which is a wedding celebration for his mother, Tedra (Nikki Crawford), and his uncle Rev (Billy Eugene Jones), who have married just a week after the murder of Juicys father, Pap (also played by Jones). When Pap returns in a spiffy spectral form crisp porcelain-white suit and shoes to tell him that Rev orchestrated his murder, Juicy must decide whether hell seek revenge. And all this in the midst of a party also attended by his family friends, the judgmental Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas) and her adult kids, Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith).
Just a few weeks ago Fat Ham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama despite having never had an in-person production. In April 2021, the Wilma Theater released a filmed version of the play that my colleague Jesse Green wrote was hilarious yet profound. But perhaps thats no surprise given its from the playwright of such critically acclaimed works as Kill Move Paradise and The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.
So many playwrights and directors try to find the spaces in Shakespeares texts that they can squeeze into, strong-arming their personal sensibilities and contemporary politics into some of Shakespeares best-known speeches and scenes. Ijames does the opposite in Fat Ham; he steals the bones of the original and sloughs off the excess like the fatty bits on a slab of meat. He crafts his own story and then within it makes space for Shakespeare again.
Thats to say that there is actual Shakespeare here, with Juicy slipping into Hamlets original language now and then. (Spears, whos no stranger to classic Shakespeare roles, pulls on the Old English comfortably, like an old pair of jeans, his line-reading colloquial and unfussed.) In fact, Ijames keenly grants everyone a level of meta-awareness. The effect is stunning, making the play a living text, moving between Hamlet, the story happening on the stage and the world beyond the fourth wall.
What you tell them? more than one character asks Juicy them being the audience. The assumption being that Juicy may mislead us, as if we dont already know some version of this story and how it ends. Fat Ham uses that to its advantage, challenging our expectations of, say, Tedra, who isnt shy about defending herself against the trope of the weak, unfaithful wife and irresponsible mother. At one point, she says of the audience: They done already made up they minds about what Im worth. What I get to feel. What I get to do.
Ijames also opts out of the Hamlet-Ophelia romance, instead making several of the traditionally straight characters gay. And Opal is not the fragile love-stricken girl in so many other Hamlet adaptations but strong and tough enough to throw down in a street fight.
What would normally be a story about revenge instead becomes one about the toxic masculinity and homophobia that plague the Black community. You was soft, Rev says to Juicy with a sneer. And the men in our family aint soft. And I started to think look at this little pocket of nothing.
Just as Hamlet is full of humor, so too is Fat Ham, from Juicys deadpan sarcasm to Revs elaborately singsong sermon of a mealtime prayer. And Chris Herbie Holland as Tio (thats Horatio), Juicys kooky cousin and best friend, shakes up every scene hes in with raucous comedy.
Fat Ham truly sings in the ensemble scenes, and Alis direction crackles in the many instances when there are overlapping jokes, remarks and barbs. If the comedys not in the script, then its in the controlled chaos, because the cast is talented, though they shine best when the action of the 90-minute show picks up. The pacing in the first few scenes could slow so the beauty of the language and characters dont get lost in a monotonous tread. And the actors mostly mic-less performance occasionally suffers from their attempts to both emote and project; the volume erases much of the tonal modulation and dialogue pauses.
Dominique Fawn Hills costume design adds another layer of character development: Rabbys loud Barney-purple ensemble, with its flouncy hat, for the church-loving gossip queen; Juicys gloomy all-black ensemble of overalls and a mesh shirt; Tios Goosebumps T-shirt and coral zebra-print button-down with acid-washed embroidered jeans; and one resplendent explosion of colorful fabrics and accessories that will catch audiences off-guard, in the best way, at the end of the show.
Maruti Evans smart scenic design a maroon-red back porch on a thrust stage covered with AstroTurf, in front of a backdrop of the house is just as vivid as the costumes and the playful lighting (by Stacey Derosier).
For all that Ijames dismantles in Shakespeares original text, he builds it back up into something thats more more tragic but also more joyous, more comedic, more political, more contemporary. It dons the attributes of Shakespeare that make it classic. To be or not to be becomes a different kind of existential query. Its not a question of life or death, but of who we can decide to be in a world that tries to define that for us: Can you be soft? Can you be queer? Can you be brave? Can you be honest?
Through July 3 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times