‘Fat Ham’ Off Broadway Review: A Young Gay Black Hamlet Smokes Shakespeare, in a Good Way

James Ijames’ hilarious and brilliant riff on the Bard resets the tragedy at a Southern cookout

fat ham
"Fat Ham" (Photo: Joan Marcus)

To BBQ, or not to BBQ? The questions swirl around James Ijames’ “Fat Ham,” a brilliant and hilarious riff on “Hamlet” set not in a medieval Danish castle but at a backyard cookout somewhere in the American South. Our prince is Juicy (Marcel Spears), a queer Black introvert and the son of a local rib impresario famed for his spice rub. (“Ah, there’s the rub,” Juicy wryly notes.)

“Fat Ham,” which opened Thursday at the Public Theater in a co-production with National Black Theatre, is not just a sit-com version of the Bard, with our hero’s pal Horatio recast as the stoner Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) and Polonius as an outwardly prim church lady with a secretly raunchy past (Benja Kay Thomas). What elevates Ijames’ one-act play, and earned him the Pulitzer Prize for drama earlier this month, is how he truly reconceives Hamlet’s experience for a modern age rife with homophobia, racial injustice and the legacies of violence passed down through generations.

Yes, Juicy is a mama’s boy (with the bedazzled t-shirt to prove it) who’s smarting from the murder of his father and his mother’s sudden marriage to his uncle. (“Your daddy ain’t been dead a week and he already Stanley steamering your mom,” Tio jokes.) But when the ghost of his Pap (Billy Eugene Jones) appears — in a moment ingeniously staged by director Saheem Ali — and demands to be avenged for his own brother’s betrayal, Juicy rightly pushes back. After all, this is the Pap who derides him as a “girly ass puddle of spit” and once threw his beloved Black Barbie doll in the smoker.

Still, Juicy is not happy about his mother’s sudden marriage and the similarly toxic masculinity of his uncle (also played by Jones) — who also squandered Juicy’s tuition money for a human resources degree at the University of Phoenix. And he’s given to sulking about his dismal prospects, both academic and romantic — despite long exchanged glances with Polonius/Rabby’s son Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), a closeted military-man version of Laertes, and the moral support of Larry’s sister Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), a dress-hating lesbian Ophelia stand-in who’s not afraid to call Juicy out on his own BS. (“You not good with people,” she tells him.)

Ijames offers a fresh take on Hamlet’s famed ambivalence, here borne of very modern truths in Juicy’s experience as a gay Black man in the 21st century. “It’s inherited trauma. You carrying around your whole family’s trauma man,” Tio tells him at one point.

Both Juicy and Ijames are also carrying around the weight of Shakespearean tradition — and the burden of living up to lofty expectations even as they adapt them for their own purposes. Juicy is the lone character on stage to quote the Bard verbatim — “You watch too much PBS,” his mother tells him, “People don’t need to know all that” — even as he makes adjustments, for example, catching the conscience of the king with a game of charades that outs Rev as a murderer.

Ali and his design team (sets by Maruti Evans, costumes by Dominique Fawn Hall) work wonders in creating a bright, colorful package for Ijames’ laugh-out-loud humor, which is delivered in strokes that are broad enough to milk a punchline while keeping the characters grounded in a reality that serves the play’s heavier themes.

Ijames biggest innovation, and most successful gambit, is in exploding the idea that Hamlet needs to push past his ambivalence at all and that his arc is destined to end in death. “We just gotta…uh…commit,” Juicy says as he tries to rouse himself to action. “Cause this a tragedy. We tragic.”

As his mom responds: “Why though?”

Why not just toss some more ribs on the grill, pass the potato salad and turn up the music?