Dismantling Shakespeare to liberate a gay Black 'Hamlet'

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Dismantling Shakespeare to liberate a gay Black 'Hamlet'
Billy Eugene Jones, left, leads a prayer in “Fat Ham” at the Public Theater in New York, May 11, 2022. James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, set at a Southern barbecue, gets its first in-person production at the Public Theater. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK, NY.- I could begin with the ghost. Or the famous existential question.

But I’m not reviewing another run-of-the-mill adaptation of “Hamlet”; “Fat Ham,” James Ijames’ outstanding transformation of Shakespeare’s tragedy into a play about Black masculinity and queerness, both echoes “Hamlet” and finds a language beyond it.

So I’ll start with a scene that especially evokes this production’s 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 Radiohead’s “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 Hamlet’s 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, he’s 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 Juicy’s 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 he’ll 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 that’s no surprise given it’s 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 Shakespeare’s texts that they can squeeze into, strong-arming their personal sensibilities and contemporary politics into some of Shakespeare’s 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.

That’s to say that there is actual Shakespeare here, with Juicy slipping into Hamlet’s original language now and then. (Spears, who’s 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 don’t 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 isn’t 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 I’m 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 ain’t 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 Juicy’s deadpan sarcasm to Rev’s elaborately singsong sermon of a mealtime prayer. And Chris Herbie Holland as Tio (that’s Horatio), Juicy’s kooky cousin and best friend, shakes up every scene he’s in with raucous comedy.

“Fat Ham” truly sings in the ensemble scenes, and Ali’s direction crackles in the many instances when there are overlapping jokes, remarks and barbs. If the comedy’s not in the script, then it’s 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 don’t 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 Hill’s costume design adds another layer of character development: Rabby’s loud Barney-purple ensemble, with its flouncy hat, for the church-loving gossip queen; Juicy’s gloomy all-black ensemble of overalls and a mesh shirt; Tio’s “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 Shakespeare’s original text, he builds it back up into something that’s 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. It’s 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?

‘Fat Ham’

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.

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