Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Nancy's recent review of POTUS
Meet Juicy, a conflicted present-day Hamlet searching for his place in James Ijames's Fat Ham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama now playing at Huntington Theatre Company. Like his literary predecessor, Juicy is an outsider to his family, a "philosopher-poet" in a world of prose. And he's also Black, queer, and (as his mama says) "thicc" with two c's.
Right off the bat, Juicy (Marshall W. Mabry IV) tells us that he hates it here. "Here" is a backyard somewhere in the South, where he's forced to suffer through a barbecue celebrating his mother's hasty remarriage to his uncle. Juicy has been working toward an online degree in human resources, but he can't go back; his mother and uncle squandered the rest of his tuition savings. And if things weren't bad enough, his father–who was killed in prison, "like he was in one of them HBO shows with the dragons and whatnot"–reappears as a ghost and beseeches Juicy to avenge his murder.
Suddenly, Juicy is at a crossroads: Will he obey his father and prove his manliness by taking revenge on his uncle? Or will he break free from the cycles of violence passed down in his family from generation to generation?
The Huntington's production of Fat Ham, produced in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective, is a lively and, at times, electric performance of a play that reframes the tragedy of Hamletthrough a lens of queer Black joy. Ijames's vibrant reimagining allows these characters to choose something for themselves beyond their Shakespearean fates, and embrace the possibility of life. Plus, beneath the well of shared family trauma, it's really funny.
Ijames cleverly condenses the action into a tight one-act, set in real time at the celebratory barbecue. Driven by his father's ghostly apparition, Juicy sets out to reveal the truth that his Pap was offed by his uncle Rev (both men played by James T. Alfred). His mother Tedra (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), meanwhile, is busying about to pull everything together and trying to keep the peace. Also invited to the cookout: cousin Tio (Lau'rie Roach); Juicy's good friend Opal (Victoria Omoregie); her brother Larry (Amar Atkins), sturdy and respectable; and their churchgoing mother Rabby (Thomika Marie Bridwell).
As tensions heat up by the grill-side, Ijames has fun playing around in Shakespeare's sandbox, including hearty samples of iambic pentameter that he mixes into these characters' contemporary vernacular. When Juicy follows a moment of intimacy by reciting, "What a piece of work is a man," the oft-quoted monologue feels deliciously sexy in its new context. Whereas Hamlet connived to trap the King with a staged play, this performance finds Juicy one-upping his uncle in a game of charades.
The Huntington's production, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, doesn't always rise to the wit and irreverence of Ijames's text. At the performance I saw, the cast still seemed to be finding their rhythms in the early scenes. It takes until the family sits down to eat for the show to really start cooking. Some of this may be the sound design; several actors had trouble projecting when they stood further upstage. (I will applaud Luciana Stecconi's clever backyard set design, which is full of hidden gems: a buffet of mismatched lawn chairs and, even though it's a wedding celebration, "It's a Boy!" balloons.)
In the lead role, Mabry is ultimately compelling as our Hamlet surrogate, but he could use more spark to start off. His Juicy is a gentle and sensitive soul, but it takes time to adjust to his quieter delivery. Mabry hits his stride when the karaoke machine comes out (no spoilers on Juicy's song choice). From that moment on, as Juicy begins to let his guard down, his warmth and openness are more palpable, and his character choices stronger.
As Juicy's mother Tedra, Marshall-Oliver doesn't have to sweat to get laughs, and she cannily balances the broader comedy with a noticeable discomfort as the fractures in her family bubble to the surface. We feel in her performance an unwavering love for her child, even when she doesn't fully understand him. Omoregie also impresses as Opal, a grounded and supportive foil to the melancholic Juicy, pushing back on the gender constructs that are boxing her in. Best of all is Roach, magnetic as cousin Tio, who brings down the house in a stoned-out-of-his-mind monologue about a sexually confused virtual reality experience with a gingerbread man.
Everyone at this party is playing a part, pretending to be someone they're not: a straight son, a devoted wife, a loving patriarch. Larry, outwardly the proud son and military hero, is struggling with his identity just like Juicy. "People decide what they want you to be," he says, "It's hard to fight that." As the play becomes increasingly raucous in its madcap race to the finish line, Ijames revels in overturning the patriarchal, heteronormative mores that restrict these characters' beautiful selves. He gives this family the power to rewrite the tragic fates that their circumstances portend for them.
If everything wraps up too neatly, well, that's a trick straight out of Shakespeare's playbook. It's the final ingredient that makes Fat Ham sing: the promise of a happy ending. All's well that ends well, after all.
Fat Ham, presented by The Huntington, runs through October 29, 2023, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St, Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit huntingtontheatre.org, call 617-266-0800, or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office in person.