theater review

On Broadway, Fat Ham Keeps You at a Distance From the Cookout

From Fat Ham — now at the American Airlines Theatre.
From Fat Ham — now at the American Airlines Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Fat Ham’s transfer to Broadway, the cookout at the center of the show looks very far away. James Ijames’s play premiered last spring at the Public Theater, and any play’s move to a much bigger venue will thin the intimacy of the experience. This time, though, the play itself already holds its audience at a remove — intentionally. The Pulitzer Prize–winning modern rewrite of Hamlet, transplanted from Elsinore to a cookout in the upper reaches of the American South, is all about its characters resisting the expectations of everyone on the other side of the proscenium. Its melancholic hero, Juicy (Marcel Spears), isn’t especially haunted by the appearance of his father’s ghost telling him to kill his usurper. This isn’t a tragedy. In fact, it breaks open and becomes a comedy complete with a big dance sequence at the end. Conceptually, I’m right there with what Ijames is cooking up, but by the time that finale came around, I was left a little cold, craving some pulled pork but, instead, getting a takeout sandwich encased in too many layers of cling wrap.

It’s frustrating, because Fat Ham starts off by carving up Hamlet with glee. The title itself refers both to its main character — Juicy is a queer, Black, and “thicc” Hamlet whose version of going to Wittenberg is taking online classes at the University of Phoenix — as well as the baked meats in Shakespeare’s text that furnish the tables of both the king’s funeral and his brother’s wedding to his widow. In this take, the baked meats come via a smoker that’s puffing away onstage before a cookout celebrating Juicy’s uncle Rev’s marriage to his mother after his father was shanked in prison—at Rev’s orders, according to Pap’s ghost. Billy Eugene Jones plays both Rev and Pap, and the two come across as different kinds of preening tyrant: one supercilious and the other more aggressive yet both pumped up with machismo. Even as a ghost, Pap can’t help bullying his son — zeroing in on his queerness, calling him a “girly-ass puddle of spit,” and demanding that Juicy man up, do his duty, kill Rev, enact revenge.

So far, so Shakespeare, but Fat Ham quickly defuses the question of whether Juicy will take arms against this specific sea of troubles. Like Hamlet, he’s moody and sarcastic, but he isn’t particularly conflicted. Spears plays it like his father has asked him to do a chore he never plans to get around to. The other characters let him off the hook — in dialogue anyway. His Horatio-esque friend, Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), tells Juicy that “these cycles of violence are, like, deep. Ingrained. Hell, engineered.” He points to the history of slavery and incarceration of Black men, traumas that Juicy is carrying around in himself. It’s a speech that’s true thematically but false as dialogue, too directly cribbed from therapyspeak, and it lands oddly coming from the mouth of a character who was moments earlier drooling over OnlyFans. “You don’t got to let it define you,” Tio says. To which Juicy responds, “That was way deeper than I was expecting.” Intellectually, I agree, but like a lot of Fat Ham, the exchange is more told than felt. The characters look small next to the ideas they’re being used to express.

Fat Ham does carry onward with a spirit of joviality as everyone arrives at the cookout. Ease is the point, even though it keeps being too easy. Director Saheem Ali nudges the performances toward big comedic swings, especially from Nikki Crawford as Juicy’s mother, Tedra — who does a wild karaoke rendition of “100% Pure Love” — and from Benja Kay Thomas in the Polonius position as a church lady named Rabby. The results are crowd-pleasing and grow monotonous. As Helen Shaw noted about the Off Broadway production, the middle third is a tough hang if you’re not on Fat Ham’s wavelength, and that problem is magnified in a larger setting. After Tedra’s performance, Juicy does a rendition of “Creep.” Sure, it’s nice to hear Spears’s vocal power, but with the music and lighting amped up further than before, I lost track of what the moment was revealing about Juicy’s emotional state other than the winking joke that of course Hamlet would love Radiohead.

Ijames is too kind to Juicy to let him be much of a creep anyway. Tedra, once she gets confirmation that her son is gay, supports him unquestioningly. Juicy’s friend Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) — Ophelia reconfigured as a hotheaded queer woman — is also on his side. He has even drawn the eye of Opal’s brother Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), who’s Laertes as a repressed marine. The two of them, we learn, were childhood friends but grew apart as Larry forced himself to become as hard as Juicy isn’t. “I want to be soft,” Larry tells Juicy. “I want to arch my back. I want to bless someone with how soft I can be.” There’s material in the tension between them: Ijames, in several quotes from Hamlet’s monologues, has Juicy recite the “what a piece of work is man” speech after that interaction — with a heavy emphasis on the new meaning of “man delights not me; no, nor woman neither.” But like so much that is potentially fraught in the play, that tension slacks off quickly. Ijames hypothesizes that, with Juicy’s encouragement, Larry can slough off his repression and embrace his queerness, so he does. The same goes for Rabby’s judgment toward Opal. Even Rev is conveniently dealt with, and Juicy doesn’t have to raise a finger.

The wish fulfillment comes so quickly that it makes the play dissolve. Who are these people who can suddenly slip the bonds of the conflicts that define them? That’s a point that Ijames doesn’t want to share. Tedra, given the opportunity to break the fourth wall and explain why she’s remarrying, tells Juicy that she’d simply prefer not to. “They done already made up they minds about what I’m worth,” she says. “What I get to feel. What I get to do.” Why open herself up to the judgment of the crowd? That’s a bold but pessimistic gesture. There’s little faith here that an audience might be able to understand Tedra, Juicy, or the rest of the cookout attendees, so we aren’t allowed to glimpse too much of them. It brings out a bitter, resentful tang in Ijames’s script that doesn’t sit well with the feast — all the more so because it isn’t fully cooked. I’d be interested to see another version of Fat Ham that brings that bitterness out further, slices toward the confrontational bones underneath the comedy. Instead, we get that splashy finale complete with a confetti cannon — played as celebratory, though the insistence on joy comes off as condescending. Watching the characters dance away, freed from their tragic story line, I was theoretically happy for them but left with the gnawing sensation that I didn’t know them much at all.

Fat Ham is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre.

On Broadway, Fat Ham Keeps You Distanced From the Cookout