Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Fat Ham
Studio Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's recent review of Ragtime


Tanesha Gary and Marquis D. Gibson
Photo by Margot Schulman
The premise of Fat Ham seems unlikely: a comic spin on William Shakespeare's Hamlet set at a backyard barbecue in the American South. However, James Ijames' thoughtful play–which examines Black family dynamics, the search for identity, and moving beyond inherited trauma–received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and succeeds brilliantly at Washington's Studio Theatre.

Director Taylor Reynolds has brought together seven skilled and empathetic actors who bring out all the sides of Ijames' script: the intrusion of the supernatural into the everyday; the scenes that parallel Shakespeare's stagecraft and language; and, unlike Hamlet, a resolution in which, to misquote the Bard, "the rest is not silence" but, instead, loud and proud.

Ijames' protagonist is Juicy (Marquis D. Gibson), a young Black man determined to build a life beyond his family's barbecue restaurant. Unfortunately, his father Pap (Greg Alverez Reid) was recently killed in prison while serving a sentence for murder, and his uncle Rev (also Reid) immediately swooped in and married Juicy's mother Tedra (Tanesha Gary). That's bad enough, but then Pap's ghost appears (in one of Danielle Preston's impressive costume designs, an otherworldly white suit trimmed with silver embroidery and a scattering of lights) to set Juicy straight about a few things.

Gibson gives an expansive, emotional performance as a man trying to live authentically and be who he is, but facing obstacles at all sides: Rev and Tedra have no interest in his goals and, as the audience learns early on, have stolen the money for his (online, questionable) college degree. Of course, he isn't the only one: family friend Rabby (Kelli Blackwell, in a resplendent church-lady outfit) has shoehorned her tough daughter Opal (Gaelyn D. Smith) into an absurd dress, and her son Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb) isn't especially comfortable in his Marine dress uniform. Friend Tio (Thomas Walter Booker), meanwhile, is continuously high and eventually gets a dazzling monologue describing his most recent trip.

Jean Kim's set design crowds a lot of detail onto the Mead Theatre stage–the rear of Juicy's house, a back patio with chairs and cooking equipment, a bit of green lawn–and even nails the details: some of the celebratory balloons have "get well soon" and "new baby" messages, suggesting how quickly the wedding barbecue has been thrown together. Minjoo Kim's lighting design easily encompasses both the realistic and the fantastic.

Fat Ham runs through December 23, 2023, at Studio Theatre, Mead Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

By James Ijames
Directed by Taylor Reynolds
Juicy: Marquis D. Gibson
Tedra: Tanesha Gary
Rev/Pap: Greg Alverez Reid
Opal: Gaelyn D. Smith
Larry: Matthew Elijah Webb
Rabby: Kelli Blackwell
Tio: Thomas Walter Booker


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