James Ijames’s Fat Ham is a play about Hamlet, and Hamlet is a play about ambivalence; therefore Fat Ham is a play about ambivalence. At least … I mean … that’s sort of true? Appropriately enough, I’m not confident that I’m right about either of those premises: Ijames’s comedy at the Public Theater is more about alleviating generational anguish than it is about Shakespeare, for instance. But equivocation does make up the texture of both plays. They each deal with a man as he examines and extends a moment of doubt — the hero needs to take action, but he doesn’t know what that action should be. After seeing the Pulitzer Prize–winning Fat Ham, I have been lost in my own version of that long indecision, teetering between disappointment and pleasure. To like Fat Ham or not to like Fat Ham? Days later, that is still my question.
So what is the feeling of the as-yet-unmade choice — fear, exhilaration, or delay? For Ijames it’s the melting lassitude of a summer backyard get-together, somewhere in which the heat is serious. His Hamlet-manqué could be anywhere in North Carolina, says the script, or Tennessee. Set designer Maruti Evans hints that there’s something uncanny going on there, despite the cheery balloons and bright green lawn. Beyond a sliding glass door, the interior of the house is obviously a blown-up photograph, a two-dimensional image. Other flat surfaces, like a checked tablecloth on a folding table, sometimes hide eerie mysteries, so there might be more behind that paper-printed kitchen — say, some force capable of tearing through the domestic scene.
Instead of princely, dithering Hamlet, Ijames gives us cash-strapped, indecisive Juicy (Marcel Spears), whose murdered father, Pap (Billy Eugene Jones), was a barbecue pitmaster, a bad dad, and a capricious killer. Pap’s place at the grill has been taken by his identical brother, Rev (also Jones), and now we’re at the party celebrating Rev’s wedding to Juicy’s mother, Tedra (Nikki Crawford), held only days after Pap has gone into his grave. This sounds bleak, but based on Juicy’s super-cute mourning outfit — a half-up pair of black overalls, adorably distressed — the situation is being played for laughs. Gleaming in a bedazzled white suit, Pap wafts around in ghostly dudgeon, demanding Juicy make things right. He’s not worried that anything bad will happen to the gay son he barely cared for. “Too soft to die young,” says Pap. “You ain’t got it. What it takes. To perish like me.”
Ijames’s title is both a reference to the main character’s lusciousness — he’s described as “thicc” in the character list and as “opulent” by a man who desires him — and to Hamlet’s “funeral baked meats” that furnish forth the marriage table. His jokes are sly and unafraid of puns. Shakespeare’s “Ay, there’s the rub” gets repurposed to talk about marinade, for instance, and Spears takes a moment to wink at the audience about it. Ijames and his director Saheem Ali also lean into shtick for a good portion of the humor — Tedra wants to be praised for her sweet potato salad (“You make this?” “You know I did!”); Rev, who doesn’t seem to actually go to church much, does a wild-eyed prayer at the dinner table. There’s a “Thank ya, Jesus!” yelled by the play’s Polonius-equivalent, neighbor Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), who goes broad in full church-lady mode. At the party, Rabby badgers her grown children, Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), both of whom have a similar secret to Juicy’s. As he did in last summer’s Merry Wives, Ali applies a heavy touch to the comedy, which worked for the people laughing around me. I often found it flattening and false.
Even though Juicy tosses in a few nicely performed monologues from the original, Shakespeare’s play isn’t Ijames’s main target. He quickly makes us aware that Pap isn’t worth your concern, let alone a whole vengeance plot, and his attention turns to Juicy’s just erotic deserts and his sex-positive mother. During a karaoke session, Crawford’s outsize performance (she somehow does a striptease without taking her clothes off) steals the show; Spears has to belt out a passionate rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” just to get the spotlight back. But this is all in good, mutually supportive, fun. Fat Ham starts by showing us a lonely, queer Black man comparable to, say, Usher in Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop — misunderstood by a Christian family determined to simultaneously love and exclude him. But Tedra is so physically expressive in her own relationship, so delighted to see Juicy touched and embraced, you can tell Ijames is simply unwilling to let his character be that sort of sad for long.
In this way, the original’s “to be or not to be” conundrum eases up into something more like “to be bothered or not.” The play bends reality a bit to make it seem pliable. How intractable is generational trauma anyway? Sadness can be sung about or sung away; the call to violence can be refused; even bigotry and hatred can wilt in the face of affection and fabulousness. The Hamlet figure in Shakespeare’s plot has a lot of decisions to make — choices between mercy or Old Testament righteousness, peace or duty. Here, though, he’s got another choice too. Juicy can experience his life as a cause for grief, or he can simply … get a boyfriend and dance.
So much of Fat Ham depends on the explicit exchange of one genre for another — tragedy for comedy — that a great deal also relies on your interaction with its humor. That’s why this particular production’s middle section lost me: I couldn’t feel its core transaction, that shift in weight from expected sorrow (we know where this story goes) to experienced joy (this story can go anywhere he wants it to go). I admire Ijames’s theatrical invention, and I could see his play moving briskly past me, but for an hour or more, it seemed to be at a distance.
Finally, though, it did sweep me up, and I felt as though I was stepping onto a trolley already in motion. Ijames and Ali create a magnificently silly farce-climax, followed by a sublimely glittery reality-breaking denouement. And between these two sequences came my favorite moment. After the peak of the action, when the characters realize that the rules of dramaturgy do not need to apply to them, they relinquish their strenuously noisy performances and just talk. They turn outwards, get ready to tell us what the play was about, and — hesitate.
TEDRA: Yeah, I always thought I would know what I wanted to say when I got everyone’s attention … but …
TEDRA: I think … it’s just too private.
JUICY: Right. Do you feel lighter?
TEDRA: You know what? I do.
Ijames is particularly good at breaking the fourth wall; every time he has his characters notice the outside world, it sharpens and lightens the show. But this moment … ah! You could write a dissertation about that idea — that a person in a play might not want to share any more of herself with the hungry audience. Tedra/Crawford has done so much already: She danced and sang and shimmied directly at the folks in the front row. She asked us to laugh at her and with her, yet Ijames tells us the greater part of her experience must be left to the imagination. I admit, I am still on the fence about the production, confused about the way I went cold in the theater just as everyone around me roared in amusement. But I do know I’ll be thinking about that “private” for years to come. It’s the sort of gesture you can hang a whole play on, maybe even a whole philosophy. Hamlet said it first: What a piece of work.
Fat Ham is at the Public Theater through July 3.