They invited Shakespeare to the cookout. They got 'Fat Ham.'
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, July 13, 2024

They invited Shakespeare to the cookout. They got 'Fat Ham.'
From left, Marcel Spears, Nikki Crawford and Billy Eugene Jones in “Fat Ham” at the Public Theater in New York, May 11, 2022. Set at a North Carolina backyard barbecue, “Fat Ham” unpacks themes of homophobia and toxic masculinity in a blend of colloquial language and Shakespearean English. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK, NY.- When James Ijames and Saheem Ali, the playwright and director of the Broadway-bound Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fat Ham,” talk about their projects, they do so in the kind of shorthand of longtime friends: incomplete sentences, phrases punctuated with laughs and a whole vocabulary of glances.

It’s a frigid February day, and they have settled into a booth at the Library restaurant at the Public Theater. Ijames is a bit guarded — speaking carefully, his posture showing a certain reserve. Ali radiates energy — beaming as he listens to Ijames, occasionally tapping him on the arm in excitement.

“We’re always, always, always ideating, always brainstorming,” Ali said. “It’s kind of wonderful.”

Ijames gently contradicts Ali: “Yeah, I am not thinking about anything else.”

“You just sent me a new draft —” Ali starts.

“That was a while ago!” Ijames protests.

“It was like two weeks ago!” Ali insists. Both of them crack up.

The back-and-forth is a hallmark of the creative partnership that now finds them preparing to make their Broadway debuts with “Fat Ham,” a co-production of the National Black Theater and the Public Theater. When the show opens at the American Airlines Theater on April 12, it will be the first National Black Theater production to appear on Broadway and the only work by a Black playwright on Broadway this spring.

“I remember we announced that we’re coming and then the climate really kind of shifted after that,” said Ali, 44, acutely aware of the commercial pressures that have left new stories by Black playwrights struggling to find staying power on Broadway. “What are we walking into?”

A riff on “Hamlet” in the form of a Black family gathering in North Carolina, the story follows a college student named Juicy, who is stuck at a barbecue that doubles as a wedding celebration for his mother, Tedra, and her new husband, Rev, a pit master and the brother of Tedra’s recently deceased ex-husband. Juicy’s the sullen outcast; he’s gay, emotionally aware, intellectual and not the embodiment of Black manhood that Rev expects him to be. When the ghost of Juicy’s father appears, demanding Juicy avenge his wrongful killing at his brother’s hand, the “Hamlet” story commences.

The show’s world premiere, a filmed production for the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, was streamed digitally in 2021, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The play then had a critically acclaimed off-Broadway run in 2022 at the Public Theater. Just weeks before opening, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Ijames, 42, who grew up in North Carolina and lives in Philadelphia, where he is the co-artistic director of the Wilma, is known for his examinations of Blackness and how it has been shaped by our nation’s prejudices. He strikes right at the foundations, often drawing on what are now viewed as the hypocrisies of the heroes of U.S. history like Thomas Jefferson (in “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever”) and George and Martha Washington (in “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington”).

Ijames’ first play for the National Black Theater, 2017’s “Kill Move Paradise,” imagines a waiting room in the afterlife where four young Black men are trying to understand their deaths.

“He’s helping create a visible space for us to bear witness to the trauma, the pain, the amount of lost bodies, but also the amount of hope,” said Jonathan McCrory, the National Black Theater’s executive artistic director. “We needed that. We needed someone to help us rethink and re-articulate the space in which our grief was amalgamating.”

It was also the show that brought Ijames and Ali together. Ali, who has since directed Jocelyn Bioh’s “Merry Wives” and a revival of Anna Deavere Smith’s classic “Fires in the Mirror,” had attended a table read in 2016. Ijames remembers being drawn to how Ali spoke about the text and interacted with the actors.

They didn’t have much face time beyond that first meeting, though Ijames and Ali texted and called each other. (“This was before Zoom” became popular, Ijames noted.) Opening night was the first time Ijames saw Ali’s staging of his work. He loved it, but decided that in the future he didn’t want to miss the chemistry that occurs when the playwright is actually in the room for the rehearsal process.

When they decided to collaborate again, Ali and Ijames gravitated toward Shakespeare. Both had developed an interest in the flexibility of the text at an early age; each cited “Romeo and Juliet” as the play that un-ruffed and de-frilled Shakespeare for them, allowing them to see the different language, lives and cultural experiences that could be welcomed into the text. For Ali, it started with performing Shakespeare with his peers in Kenya, where he was born and raised. “It was malleable. It was playable. It was completely adaptable,” he said. “Coming to the States, Shakespeare is this other thing: mostly white people, very few people of color, and they speak a certain way.”

He began inviting playwrights to work on Shakespeare adaptations with him. “I was like, ‘I want someone whose profession it is to work on the language. And I can talk about the world and the concept.’”

Ijames had already been drafting something along those lines, working on what would become “Fat Ham” in 2017. He had picked his favorite Shakespeare play, “Hamlet,” forming the idea from King Claudius and Queen Gertrude’s wedding celebration in the second scene of the first act.

“I was like, ‘What if you could spill all of ‘Hamlet’ into that party, that celebration, and tell the whole story there? What would change? What ultimately would these people find out and explore about each other in that pressure cooker of time?’” Ijames said.

The tragedy of “Fat Ham” is multifaceted, rooted not in murder and intrigue but in themes of homophobia, self-hatred and toxic masculinity. Ijames unpacks it all in a chili-and-cornbread combo of colloquial language and Shakespearean English, with characters that reflect an authentic Black experience.

“Black people of the diaspora, in America, on the continent, anywhere else in the world — we speak with music, we speak with meter,” Ijames said.

IN SPEAKING ABOUT building the show, Ali and Ijames described how they complemented and trusted each other. Ijames mentioned Ali’s transformation of the karaoke scene in “Fat Ham,” staging it with an otherworldly theatricality. The lights shift, the characters’ movements slow down and Ali infuses the scene with what Ijames calls a “physical vocabulary” — an unexpected choreographed sequence that includes metal-style headbanging. Ali noted his admiration for the spaces Ijames provides in the script for the director to extend his imagination. He cited the stage directions at the end, which begin, “The play cracks open.” What the audience sees is what the story evoked in Ali’s mind — and it’s a joyous, glamorous break from what audiences may have come to expect. In other words, a party.

“Any time I get to collaborate with him I’m happy, because I don’t have to explain things to him,” Ijames said. “He just understands.”

The word “trust” surfaces frequently among the show’s producers and cast members. “Lord knows Black folks endure a lot of contorting to fit in spaces that were not made for ourselves,” said Sade Lythcott, chief executive of the National Black Theater. “So trust becomes almost like the alchemy or the catalyst for how we can communicate to each other and build something as beautiful as ‘Fat Ham.’”

Marcel Spears, who portrayed Juicy off-Broadway and is returning to the role, describes an almost psychic “synchronicity” between Ijames and Ali in the rehearsal room. “It’s like mom and dad,” he said.

This will also be Spears’ first time on Broadway, and four other cast members are making their Broadway debuts as well. “Everybody’s walking into it with a sense of urgency and pride and joy,” he said.

Still, “Fat Ham” faces a commercial environment that is challenging for new productions — especially plays by and about people of color. In the 2021-22 season, Broadway made history with the premiere of seven plays by Black playwrights. Yet many suffered financial losses (though not unusual for Broadway plays, particularly damning for work by already underrepresented artists) and a couple closed early, exacerbated by the surge in omicron cases.

“I’m shaking in my boots! Your boy is nervous,” Spears said with an anxious laugh. He mentioned a good friend, Jordan E. Cooper, the playwright and star of “Ain’t No Mo’,” and the early closing last fall of that show, which had a mostly Black creative team. “I was disheartened because as a Black theater artist, I want our work to be seen as just as valuable and as important and as immediate to Broadway audiences as anything else.”

Lythcott, reflecting on those closures, said: “I think the way commercial theaters look at diversifying their audiences and appealing to culturally specific demographics, it still sometimes feels like Black folks are an idea and not living, breathing people. That’s the magic of James’ piece that he wrote: People can identify Tedra and Juicy; those are people that we know.”

For his part, Ijames said he hopes that “Fat Ham” will attract a diverse, “game” New York audience who will enjoy what’s happening onstage. His expectations are those of an artist shaped by a scrappier regional theater scene: “We make the thing and then hopefully people come and hopefully it enlivens the community in which we’re making the thing. And so I hope that it’s going to do that. I hope that little stretch of 42nd Street is a little more Southern, a little more country.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Today's News

February 25, 2023

How hard is it to paint like Vermeer? TV contestants find out.

Lucian Freud's portrait of his daughter, Isobel, to make auction debut

Bowie, and his personas, will live on at Victoria and Albert Museum

Willie Cole's ecological interventions turn trash into art

Contemporary masters lead Phillips' New Now auction

Sotheby's to auction original manuscript for 'Snow Crash': Landmark novel which coined the term 'Metaverse'

Shan Kuang joins Kimbell Art Museum as Conservator of Paintings

New acquisitions at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens

The collection of interior designer Cliff Fong presented at Bonhams

"Winfred Rembert: All of Me" at Hauser & Wirth in New York now on view until April 22nd, 2023

Museum to establish Brind Center for African and African Diasporic Art

Important and historic silver pitcher by Paul Revere brings a world record price of $129,875 in Weiss Auctions

Alexander Gray Associates announce move to Tribeca in 2024

International Women's Day Auction 2023, seven female curators to present seven mini auctions

Photo London announces the exhibitors list for the eighth edition of fair at Somerset House

Poly Auction Hong Kong announces Spring Auctions 2023 of Chinese art

James Cohan an exhibition of important early works by Bill Viola

Four rising theater stars to watch this spring

Anne Imhof, dancing in the ruins

They invited Shakespeare to the cookout. They got 'Fat Ham.'

A Dave Brubeck cantata boasts star soloists: His sons

Katherine Rochester appointed Curatorial Director

The Importance of Progesterone

The Power of SEO: Benefits and Advantages for Your Business

An Introduction to the Art of Gambling

Guitar virtuoso Eyal Maoz, presented by Bellus Productions, will embark on a solo concerts tour in Europe and the US.

Creativity & Flow State: A Brief History

Everything You Need To Know About

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez
Writer: Ofelia Zurbia Betancourt

Truck Accident Attorneys
Accident Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful