Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Fat Ham
Wilma Theater
Review by Rebecca Rendell

Anthony Martinez-Briggs and Brenson Thomas
Photo by Johanna Austin
After a COVID delay, a pandemic video stream from the Wilma Theater, a Pulitzer Prize, and a critically acclaimed run on Broadway, playwright James Ijames's Fat Ham is finally making its live Philadelphia premiere at The Wilma. Expectations are understandably high for this modern re-imagining of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, but director Amina Robinson's superb cast and exuberant production joyfully exceed even the most optimistic anticipation.

Fat Ham takes place during a backyard wedding reception somewhere in the southern United States. The action centers around a young black man named Juicy, who is trying to navigate complex emotions, his barbeque-loving extended family, and the angry ghost of his recently deceased father. Juicy is queer, funny, laid back, and kind, but the death of his father and his mother's decision to marry his uncle just a week later have him questioning who he is. And what he might be capable of doing.

Ijames captures the essential elements of Hamlet–the twisted injustice of familial disloyalty and a profound sense of individual impotence–and channels them into a flawlessly modern and relatable tale. That feat alone is worthy of accolades, but Ijames does something even more exciting with Shakespeare's greatest poem. Instead of a Prince of Denmark who is filled with doubt, self-pity, and poorly channeled rage, Fat Ham gives us a Hamlet (aka Brenson Thomas as Juicy) who is quietly confident in his own skin, insightful, and deeply in love with his family. Thomas's authenticity immediately captivates the audience and keeps them spellbound as this very clever and seriously humorous tale unfolds.

Juicy's self-confidence and keen perception has an interesting cause and a marvelous effect. The cause is his supportive and accepting mother Tedra, played by Donnie Hammond with touching but realistically imperfect maternal affection. Tedra's reason for marrying her brother-in-law–gracefully drafted by Ijames and earnestly conveyed by Hammond–is a remarkably compelling justification for what often seems like an impossibly unforgivable action.

Ijames' revision of the mother-son relationship transforms the entire story. Instead of Hamlet's unmitigated tragedy, we get to experience meaningful struggle and joyful celebration. Fat Ham's is a story about grappling with identity, learning self-empowerment, and ultimately pride. Family pride. Queer pride. Black pride. Pride in being authentic. That sense of pride is especially vibrant in the in the performances of Jessica Johnson as Opal and Anthony Martinez-Briggs as Tito, whose brilliantly delivered monologue about sexy virtual reality snowmen is an instant classic.

Sara Brown's open set design feels like a familiar suburban backyard floating adrift from any particular time and place. That uncanny space, lit with beautiful precision by Shon Causer, is the perfect backdrop for a story of gritty personal growth and grumpy spectral visitors. Tiffany Bacon's phenomenal costume designs ad a layer of depth to every character in this peerless production.

Fat Ham is an exquisite and wonderfully unexpected theatrical experience. Even the most loyal Shakespeare fan will delight in this powerful, cathartic, and clever tragedy turned comedy. The run has already been extended twice and cannot be extended again, so get your tickets now.

Fat Ham has been extended through December 30, 2023, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit or call the Wilma's box office at 215-546-7824.

Brenson Thomas: Juicy
Donnie Hammond: Tedra
Zuhairah McGill: Rabby
Jessica Johnson: Opal
Brandon J. Pierce: Larry
Lindsay Smiling: Pap and Uncle Rev
Anthony Martinez-Briggs: Tito

Set Designer: Sara Brown
Costume Designer: Tiffany Bacon
Lighting Designer: Shon Causer
Sound Designer: Larry Fowler