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Theatre in Review: Fat Ham (The Public Theater/National Black Theatre)

Benja Kay Thomas. Photo: Joan Marcus

In recent years, the Public has reserved a late spring/early summer slot for what you might call fractured Shakespeare. In 2018, it presented Mike Lew's Teenage Dick, which enrolled Richard III in an American high school to meddle, hilariously, in class elections. Last summer saw Jocelyn Bioh's Merry Wives, which scooped up the Mistresses Ford and Page and their nemesis Falstaff, transporting them to Harlem for some sassy, streetwise romantic scheming. Now comes Fat Ham, in which a certain Danish prince and his problems are relocated to a North Carolina backyard. It's too much to say the third time is not the charm -- James Ijames' comedy has its share of laughs, in addition a crowd-pleasing, disco-tastic finale -- but it is a surprisingly patchy, scattershot piece, hell-bent on overturning tragedy in favor of good times for all.

Juicy, the Hamlet equivalent, is the alienated scion of a family known for its barbecue restaurant, a choice apparently made so Ijames can pull a fast one with the line "Aye, there's the rub." His father, Pap, in prison for murder ("Got blood all over the pulled pork," notes Tedra, Juicy's mother), has been fatally knifed. After an indecently brief period of mourning, Tedra is marrying Rev, Pap's brother, never mind the memorial floral wreath still sitting on the backyard deck. Or, as a friend notes in a moment of unchecked candor typical of Ijames' dialogue, "Your daddy ain't been dead a week and he already Stanley Steamering your mom." Enter the unquiet spirit of Pap, covered with a checkered tablecloth. ("I was trying to look more like a ghost," he says.) He delivers the usual baleful news, and Juicy must decide whether to seek revenge against Rev.

Ijames' variations on Shakespeare are many. Both Rev and Pap are abusive father figures, undermining any quest for justice. Juicy is queer, as is Opal, a family friend who serves as the play's sort-of Ophelia. (Among the cast of characters, they are not alone in their sexual orientation.) Tedra, whose morals exist on a sliding scale, and Rev have spent Juicy's college tuition money on their wedding party, stripping him of his future prospects. The conscience-trapping play The Murder of Gonzago becomes an all-too-revealing game of charades. Occasionally, the original text pokes through: "The king, my queen, is dead," murmurs Juicy in a melancholy moment. "You watch too much PBS," replies an irritated Tedra. "How can one watch too much PBS?" he wonders.

Indeed, Ijames has little interest in the psychological dynamics of Hamlet. Instead, Fat Ham tracks Juicy's gradual progress toward self-realization, which involves throwing over a family history marked by violence and toxic masculinity. You could even say he is in conflict with the demands of Hamlet. The characters are semi-aware that they're in a play and, near the end, Juicy suggests that, according to the original scenario, the stage by now should be littered with bodies. After all, they inhabit a tragedy, don't they? The verdict on that is a hard no, leading to a high-stepping resolution in which one of the play's most tortured characters, not to be named here, reveals his inner fabulousness.

Fat Ham has plenty of fun with Juicy's online studies at the University of Phoenix -- his planned career in human resources is reason for universal snickering -- along with several other side issues. But the plotting is haphazard and halting, with the action interrupted for covers of Crystal Waters and Radiohead songs as well as a lightheaded interlude with hydrogen balloons. The characters come and go, speaking their pieces, but nothing that happens feels organic, either on its own terms or in relation to Hamlet. It's understandable that Ijames -- author of the electrifying Kill Move Paradise, about the slaughter of young Black men -- wants to spin a more hopeful scenario; this is also true of recent plays by Lynn Nottage, Antoinette Nwandu, and Keenan Scott II, among others. But the playwright's controlling hand is felt heavily throughout. And, in its concern with finding room for queer youth in Black culture, its ironic use of Tyler Perry-style tropes (especially the Madea-like Rabby, an opinionated old crone with a shocking past), and its belief in the healing powers of glitter, Fat Ham often comes across as a scattered second cousin to A Strange Loop.

The best reason to see Saheem Ali's cannily directed production is to enjoy a cast made up almost entirely of new faces, the one exception behind the fast-rising Billy Eugene Jones, who delivers a pair of chilling authority figures as Pap and Rev. Nikki Crawford's untethered Tedra hilariously appraises Juicy's sexual attractions before giving a karaoke performance worthy of a gentleman's club. Adrianna Mitchell and Benja Kay Thomas make an amusingly bickering mother-and-daughter pair as Opal and Rabby. Calvin Leon Smith simmers effectively as a young Marine whose soldierly manner conceals a big secret. As Tio, Juicy's stoner cousin, Chris Herbie Holland effortlessly handles a thoroughly baked monologue about drugs and VR that concludes with what could be the play's thesis statement: "You begin to consider what your life would be like if you chose pleasure over harm."

It's nothing against Marcel Spears to say that his is the least effective performance, as the play mostly asks him to serve as foil for his co-stars. Still, his quiet dismay at Tedra's karaoke number -- delivered lying down on the picnic table with her legs in the air -- is priceless. He also comes through in the genuinely tense climax, a showdown between Juicy and Rev that turns unexpectedly suspenseful. Nevertheless, we'll get a better sense of his gifts in future roles.

Maruti Evans' naturalistic backyard set works well as a staging area for these semi-supernatural family intrigues; it also executes a genuinely startling transformation for the finale, aided by Stacey Derosier's otherwise straightforward lighting design; she also makes good use of a rig of transparent bulbs, featuring corkscrew filaments, that flies in for the play's more surreal moments. Dominique Fawn Hill's costumes, especially Tedra's flamboyant wardrobe, are intricately detailed and unfailingly right for each character. Mikaal Sulaiman's solid sound design effectively turns the Anspacher Theater into a dance palace when needed.

Still...this is a Pulitzer Prize winner? One can comprehend the Pulitzer committee's desire to avoid another chin-stroking, audience-lecturing drama without seeing Fat Ham as the most consequential play of the year. For example, the blistering satire A Strange Loop was certainly worthy of its Pulitzer in 2020. But the citing of Fat Ham (and the previous winner, the routine situation comedy The Hot Wing King) leaves one wondering if the idea of drama matters at all. Fat Ham's emphasis on affirmation and joy at the expense of tragedy -- in effect, its intention to rewrite the too-prevalent cultural narratives that cast Black people as victims or criminals -- is probably urgently needed; at the performance I attended, the audience received it like manna. But Fat Ham remains little more than a light gloss on a great text, a feel-good piece that fades away all too soon. --David Barbour

(27 May 2022)

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