“What a piece of work is man,” wrote William Shakespeare in his masterful tragedy “Hamlet.” But just as I suspect the Bard never imagined that seminal speech would become part of the legendary 1960s musical “Hair,” I further doubt he ever expected that an African American man named James Ijames would use those musings over 500 years later in an audacious, extremely clever, and very funny play called “Fat Ham,” now on view at the American Airlines Theater.
Unsurprisingly, these words resonate just as clearly in 2023, especially when spoken by the somewhat melancholy, often philosophical, and definitely gay Juicy (a magnificent Marcel Spears) – a modern-day Hamlet to be sure -- in this Pulitzer Prize-winning reworking of the Bard’s most famous play. Indeed, while that speech can cause one to suppress a tear, by and large, the guffaws come naturally and frequently throughout the show, thanks not only to Ijames, but to Saheem Ali’s superbly directed and impeccably cast production.
We are not in Elsinore, but in a rural Southern backyard (well designed by Maruti Evans), which serves as the venue for the barbecue-centric wedding reception of Juicy’s caring if slightly trashy mother Tedra (a divine Nikki Crawford, sporting Dominique Fawn Hill’s barely-there costumes) and her new groom, Juicy’s decidedly mean-spirited uncle Rev (a superb Billy Eugene Jones).
And, yes, that is uncle in the Biblical sense. Just 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 by Rev and asks his son to avenge his week-old death. Moreover, 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 it’s to Tedra and Rev, as well as to elder family friend Rebby (a hilarious Benka Kay Thomas) and her children, the seemingly strait-laced soldier Larry (an excellent Calvin Leon Smith) and the intense if unhappy lesbian Opal (a wonderful Adrianna Mitchell).
In fact, he even periodically calls out his best-friend, the ultra-cheery, porn-obsessed, sometimes stoned Tio (a scene-stealing Chris Herbie Holland, whose speech about “Gingerbread Snowman” is a wonder to behold.)
However, Juicy also speaks his truth in a variety of ways, including through a game of charades, a chilling karaoke rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” and yes, even by directly quoting the Bard (mostly to the audience). Unsurprisingly, a little Shakespeare goes a long way for Tedra, who admonishes her son to stop watching so much PBS, further adding “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. He don’t!”
And it’s true! Ijames’ solutions are very different than old Will’s. By the end of “Fat Ham,” some of the family’s problems have been solved by fate, while others are resolved by the characters actively reclaiming their own narratives or past secrets. Most importantly, this dysfunctional group proves incapable of killing each other – even if some of its members may still believe that death is the easy way out.
Rest assured the onstage corpses are quite few in “Fat Ham.” Just be careful you don’t die laughing while watching it.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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