While Michael R. Jackson’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop is enjoying a hit run on Broadway—and is deservedly the most Tony-nominated production of the season—downtown at the Public Theater a 2022 Pulitzer-winner, James Ijames’ Fat Ham officially opened last night, with its original run already extended twice until July 3rd (extended again until July 17th). Both are extraordinarily impactful and hugely entertaining works that centre young Black queer men defying their circumstances to create a more hopeful future for themselves.
Ijames’ Fat Ham, receiving its New York premiere in a co-production with the Public and National Black Theatre—following an acclaimed filmed version during the shutdown in 2021—reenvisions Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the present day American South, with the state and exact year purposefully unspecified. As the audience settles into their seats in the Anspacher Theater, we take in the beautifully detailed set, designed by Maruti Evans, of the intimate, private space of the backyard of the Johnson family. While every seat in the house is close to the action, the front row is especially intimate, made up of mismatched lawn chairs placed on the grass itself. Centre stage is a wreath in tribute to the life of “Pap”, Waymon Johnson (Billy Eugene Jones), and as the play opens we assume we’ll bear witness to Pap’s memorial, or at least encounter a somber atmosphere. Instead, as Pap’s son Juicy (Marcel Spears) and his cousin, and oldest friend Tio (an infectiously effervescent Chris Herbie Holland), take to the backyard and begin to decorate the space with incongruous lights, balloons, and streamers, it’s clear that a celebration of some sort is about to happen.
Preparations are soon disturbed by the arrival of Pap’s ghost, courtesy of some of the best stage illusion work I’ve seen, designed by Skylar Fox, that’s simultaneously chilling and hilarious; a description that pretty much covers the overall tone of Saheem Ali’s impeccably directed, poignant and riotously funny production. Tito is the first to encounter the ghost, attempting to take a selfie with the spectre (wouldn’t we all?!), then Juicy is visited by his dead dad, who wastes little time before instructing him to wreak revenge for his murder. Pap believes that his own brother, Juicy’s uncle, Rev (also played by Billy Eugene Jones), is responsible for arranging to have him killed in prison. What Pap doesn’t yet know is that on this very day, only a week after his demise, his widow Tedra (Nikki Crawford) has married Rev. All of which will sound familiar to anyone, like Juicy himself, who has encountered one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies.
Treated much like an Elizabethan audience, we’re not allowed to neutrally standby and observe from afar, but are thrillingly involved in what’s transpiring on stage, drawn in and implicated not only by the immediacy of the set and the in the round configuration, but also by the early dismantling of the fourth wall. We’re acknowledged most frequently by Juicy, who at various points explicitly references the source material, even delivering segments of the original soliloquies directly to the audience, delicately imbuing the verses with new layers of meaning.
Ijames continues to riff on the structure and key plot points of the tragedy by “that dead old white guy”—as Tedra refers to the Bard at one point as she reproaches her son for quoting his words—and deftly reinvents Hamlet as a Black queer tragicomic masterpiece, heavy on the comic. More than simply relocating fundamental aspects of it in time, place, and social circumstances, Ijames both queers and cheers Shakespeare’s play, using his central character, and his young peers, to break the work’s inherent cycle of trauma, bloodshed, and violence.
Juciy’s relationship with his father continues to be a complex one. Even in death, the domineering Pap bullies his son, belittles him for being overweight and goads him with every euphemism for gay. He’s disparaging of his life choices, including the online degree he’s taking in human resources, yet Juicy retains a sense of loyalty to him as his own flesh and blood. Tedra, on the other hand, has clearly been a more accepting and encouraging, if untraditional, parent. Crawford plays her as a high-spirited ball of sexual and maternal energy, exuding warmth, love and joie de vivre. Graphically affectionate with Rev in front of her son—and later all of the assembled guests as she serenades her new husband with a steamy rehearsed karaoke number—she shares with Juicy, “I’m not built to be alone”. Whatever flaws Rev might have, including perhaps having arranged the murder of her late husband, she needs a man around.
Ahead of the party, at Tedra’s insistence, Juicy gets changed out of the all-black mourning clothes he’s been wearing to put on the shirt she gifted him, emblazoned with “Mama’s Boy” in glittery pink lettering. As Juicy joyfully recalls, when he was a child and wanted a Black Barbie doll, that’s exactly what she gave him, wrapped in gold; Pap’s rage at the discovery of which was a distressing watershed moment in Juicy’s childhood. His new stepfather is similarly overbearing and, like his own father, berates Juicy for his “softness”. Conversely, that’s a quality that Ijames admires and celebrates in his protagonist, describing him in the stage directions as “gloriously and beautifully soft both in body and temperament”. It’s something that’s appreciated by Juicy’s family friend Larry (Calvin Leon Smith) too, who arrives at the cookout immaculately attired in his marines uniform, ahead of his sister Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and their mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas). Opal’s mother, who wants to “soften” her, has forced her to wear a dress for the occasion.
Dashingly handsome, Smith is utterly compelling as Larry; commanding, soulful, and awkward, bringing an outside breath of fresh air with him and a sense of hope and possibility, if he could only find his way to being his true self. Proud of his uniform, Larry looks restricted and uncomfortable in it. Joining the armed services appears to be an attempt to harden or prove himself, yet his inner desire is close to the surface as he confides in Juicy, telling him: “I want to bless somebody with how soft I can be.” There’s a moving tenderness between him and Juicy that shines through Larry’s repression as the pair steals some time alone.
Larry isn’t just drawn to Juicy’s softness, but in awe of his ability to remain himself, so open and sensitive despite Pap’s history of brutality, not just in the killing a man for having foul breath which landed him behind bars, but also represented by the family business involving the killing of hogs and the cooking of hunks of flesh. Meat that we see being barbecued and placed in front of us on the backyard table by Rev who’s now taken on the pork business that Juciy wants to escape through education. Imagery of slaughter permeates the play, vividly conjured in Ijames’ dialogue, and the taking of human life is described by Pap in the same lurid way as the killing of pigs. For Rev, being trained to kill is something to be praised, as he contrasts Larry with Juicy: “He got talents and hirable skills. He ain’t out here musing. He know how to kill people. You can’t even slaughter a hog.”
Marcel Spears captivates throughout as Juicy, delivering subtle, nuanced work, and gives a vulnerability to the role that’s blended with a building confidence and defiance as this beautiful human, radiating in kindness, finds his place in the world following the death of his father. While Billy Eugene Jones brilliantly distinguishes his dual roles physically and vocally as the brothers Johnson, bringing charisma and a thinly masked volatile menace to both siblings, both murderers. Pap has been defanged in death, unable to do any actual harm himself and can only attempt to persuade others to do his biding, while Rev remains a brooding unpredictable threat. Almost stealing the show is Thomas, who gives an exquisitely observed, comedic tour-de-force as the hat-wearing Rabby in her Sunday finery. There’s sharp attention to detail in her every reaction and movement as she works her way across the stage with her cane, praising the Lord and down to have a good time, while trying to ensure her children don’t bring shame on her.
Rich with comedy throughout, the most comic, fool-like character, is the exuberant Tio, who is high and believes he’d be a hit if he created an OnlyFans profile; researching “content” on his phone, with the volume on just high enough so we know exactly what he’s watching. It’s from this unlikely source that the crux of the play is unlocked, as he recounts a conversation with his therapist: “These cycles of violence are like deep. Engrained. Hell, engineered…It’s inherited trauma. You carrying around your whole family’s trauma man. And that’s okay. You okay. But you don’t got to let it define you.” On some level, every character is dealing with what they’ve inherited or what’s expected of them by the church, their families, their community, or society’s rules about gender. But the play’s younger characters, who all express an element of queerness, are beginning to liberate themselves.
Just as we walked into the theatre seeing Pap’s wreath, but were offered a wedding cookout, Ijames delightfully subverts our expectations throughout in this exhilaratingly theatrical and unexpectedly heartening play. Making my way out, euphoric from the brilliance of the writing and performances, my hope is that works by such gifted Black queer storytellers as Ijames and Jackson, that have too often been ignored or sidelined, will remain as integral a part of the future of theatre as they are of its present. A future where we can all aspire be that bit more “gloriously and beautifully soft”.
By James Kleinmann
FAT HAM officially opened at The Public’s Anspacher Theater on Thursday, May 26th and runs through Sunday, July 17th 2022. For more details and tickets visit PublicTheater.org.