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Fat Ham Review
“What a piece of work is man,” wrote William Shakespeare in his masterful tragedy “Hamlet.” But I suspect he never imagined that over 400 years later, a man named James Ijames would simultaneously transform that seminal tragedy into -- and use that famous speech -- in “Fat Ham,” an audacious and very funny play that earned its author the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Yet, as brilliantly proven by Ijames over a mere 95 minutes, a lot has changed in five centuries; most importantly, dysfunctional families can now find ways to solve their problems other than killing each other. Death may actually be the easy way out but, let’s face it, it’s great to have an alternative.

Saheem Ali’s superb production at the Public Theater (which is co-producing the work with the National Black Theatre) takes place not at Elsinore, but in a Southern backyard. Here, the somewhat melancholy, often philosophical, and definitely gay Juicy (a magnificent Marcel Spears) is reluctantly decorating a backyard barbecue party to celebrate the sudden wedding of his often caring if slightly trashy mother Tedra (a divine Nikki Crawford) to his decidedly mean-spirited uncle Rev (a superb Billy Eugene Jones).
As in “Hamlet,” Juicy is visited by the ghost of his even meaner father (also played by Jones) who reveals that he has been the victim of fratricide and asks his son to avenge his death. And, like his Shakespearean predecessor, Juicy can’t decide whether to fulfill the request – not because he has fond feelings for Rev, but because he desperately wants Tedra to be happy.

But unlike the indecisive Dane, Juicy never feigns madness. Indeed, what makes him such a remarkable character is that he mostly just says directly what’s on his mind – whether to Tedra and Rev, to elder family friend Rabby (a hilarious Benja Kay Thomas), her children, the seemingly straight-laced soldier Larry (an excellent Calvin Leon Smith) and the strong-willed if unhappy Opal (a wonderful Adrianna Mitchell), and even his best-friend, the cheery (and usually) stoned Tio (a delightful Chris Herbie Holland).

However, Juicy speaks his truth in various ways, including a game of charades to a chilling karaoke rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” and yes, even by directly quoting the Bard, which causes Tedra to admonish her son to stop watching so much PBS and admonishing that “If you bring up that dead old white man one mo time. Don’t nobody wanna talk about his ass. You act like he got all the answers.”

And it’s true, Ijames’ answers are very different than old Will’s. By the end of “Fat Ham,” some problems have been solved by fate and inaction; others are resolved by the characters actively reclaiming their own narratives or revealing and accepting past secrets. (You may never hear the words “Velvet Sunshine” again without breaking into guffaws.)

As Ijames writes in the show’s program notes: “This ain’t Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong. I love Shakespeare. This just ain’t him. This ain’t a tragedy.” Indeed, “Fat Ham” is a delicious testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 5/26/2022
Closing 7/17/2022

Theatre Info
Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003