Marcel Spears doesn’t just make a spectacular Broadway debut — he does it the hard way, by being subtle and tenderly nuanced in his portrayal of Juicy, the haunted (literally) hero of James Ijames’ wonderful new comedy, “Fat Ham.” After winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama for its run at the Public Theater, “Fat Ham” opened Wednesday on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre.
The “Ham” of the title refers to the Bard’s “Hamlet,” and one of the many pleasures of Ijames’ play is seeing how ingeniously this playwright has transferred and updated that classic to the present day via a backyard barbeque hosted by a dysfunctional Black family somewhere in North Carolina. The printed script goes on to reveal it “could also be Virginia or Maryland or Tennessee. It is not Mississippi or Alabama or Florida. That’s a different thing all together.” That script also describes Juicy, the Hamlet of the piece, as being “thicc … He is gloriously and beautifully soft both in body and temperament.” Ijames could have titled his play “Thicc Ham,” but wisely went with “Fat” instead.
For those who know their Shakespeare, the deftest conversion is how the original play-within-a-play is turned into a game of charades. Just like Hamlet, Juicy instigates the ruse to expose his uncle and newly installed stepfather, Rev (Billy Eugene Jones), as the murderer of his father, Pap (the double-cast Jones), who comes back as a ghost to frighten his son into action. That ghost is so much fun that it’s a wonder every playwright nowadays doesn’t throw one into their play to enliven the plot.
Director Saheem Ali replicates his fast-paced staging of “Fat Ham” at the Public to make full use of the far greater resources of a Broadway stage. Holland’s few appearances as the ghost never fail to dazzle, and the actor is equally startling, too, when he portrays the vicious uncle-stepfather and new husband of Juicy’s mother, Tedra (the deliciously low Nikki Crawford). Caught between the male toxicity of both Pap and Rev, the gay Juicy has no place to go but be the sole voice of civility and reason in a family that also features a macho Marine-soldier cousin (Calvin Leon Smith), a defiantly lesbian cousin (Adrianna Mitchell) and their religious, homophobic ex-stripper of a mother (Benja Kay Thomas). Added to that human circus is porn-addicted best friend Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), who somehow self-identifies as Horatio so he can claim the privilege to live at play’s end.
Time after time in “Fat Ham,” when someone in the family has misbehaved outrageously, usually to great comic effect, it is up to Juicy to occupy the middle ground and address the audience directly in a soliloquy that binds us irrevocably to this most empathetic character. Spears plays these moments to the hilt by always underplaying them. His many dead pans and weighted pauses invariably bring down the house.
As for that wonderful ghost, much of his magic derives from Maruti Evans’ set, Dominque Fawn Hill’s costumes, Bradley King’s lighting, Earon Chew Nealey’s hair and wigs, Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound and, above all, Skylar Fox’s illusions design.
So don’t let that Pulitzer Prize fool you. “Fat Ham” is the most fun you’ll have at any play this Broadway season.