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Fat Ham

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 26, 2022

Marcel Spears and Nikki Crawford
Photo by Joan Marcus
When Shakespeare's tragedy of Hamlet butts heads with James Ijames's determinedly anti-tragic Fat Ham, the resultant mash-up makes for a cray cray joyride that demolishes the fourth wall and inundates the audience in a flood of barbecued pork, karaoke, and a sweet mix of laughs and open-hearted tenderness.

Opening tonight at The Public Theater in a co-production with the National Black Theatre, the newly crowned Pulitzer Prize winner Fat Ham uses Shakespeare's play to kickstart the plot. Our stand-in for the Prince of Denmark is "Juicy" (Marcel Spears), a barely-out-of-his-teens self-proclaimed momma's boy who shows up dressed all in black, a reluctant participant in a family barbecue to celebrate the wedding between his mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford, hilariously over the top) and his mean-ass Uncle Rev (Billy Eugene Jones). But even with the presence of a murderous uncle and a dead father who appears as a vengeance-seeking ghost (both roles brilliantly performed by Jones), the connection with Hamlet is by design a rather tenuous one.

True, Juicy does see himself as destined to play out the tale through to the bloody end. But from the hilarious first appearance of the ghost, to Tedra's dismissal of the whole Shakespeare thing ("If you bring up that dead old white man one mo time. Don't nobody wanna talk about his ass"), you know you are in a territory that lies far from Elsinore Castle.

Given that Juicy is Black, gay, hefty and moody ("I can't help who I am. I ponder"), you might well be inclined to envision a connection with Michael R. Jackson's 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop. But any actual resemblance between the two shows and their respective lead characters is strictly coincidental. Unlike Usher in A Strange Loop, Juicy is not plagued by self-deprecating voices in his head, even though both his late father and his uncle have constantly belittled him for his "softness." The saving grace here is Juicy's momma, Tedra, who, for all her outlandish behavior, loves him unconditionally.

Juicy also has a lot in common with his friends Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), the play's versions of Ophelia and Laertes though with a decided twist. On hand, as well, is Juicy's cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), a spaced-out proponent of virtual reality who regales everyone with a tale of a weirdly sexy adventure with a gingerbread man. Between his pals and Tedra and her long-time friend, Opal and Larry's mom Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), Juicy will never need to follow in the violent footsteps of his father and uncle. As for revenge, another mother, Mother Nature, takes care of that for him.

At one point, Juicy tries to explain what he believes to be the inevitability of following the prescribed destiny of Hamlet, "cause this is a tragedy. We tragic." But playwright James Ijames, director Saheem Ali, and the rest of the gathered celebrants are having none of this. Instead, they are having a blast giving the raspberry to old Will S. They convince Juicy that he is wrong, and it is likely you will have the urge to join them as they drop rules of expectations that have been imposed on them and choose instead to partay like it's the 1970s. Not Hamlet to be sure, but perhaps A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Fat Ham
Through July 3, 2022
The Public Theater, Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: