Fat Ham by Pulitzer Winner James IJames
American Airlines Theatre on Broadway
By: Karen Isaacs - May 13, 2023
Fat Ham turns Shakespeare’s Hamlet upside down without minimizing the issues the original raises or the brilliance.
The play by James IJames won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it is easy to see why.
It is original.
Too often, adaptations of Shakespeare seem forced or disrespectful of the original work. Fat Ham is neither.
James takes Hamlet and transfers it to a small town in the south on the day that Rev and Tedra are celebrating their wedding just a week after Pap, Rev’s brother and Tedra’s husband was killed in prison. Tedra’s son, Juicy is in charge of setting up the backyard for the celebratory barbeque; He isn’t thrilled with the wedding, particularly since it is happening so quickly. When Pap’s ghost appears and orders him to slaughter Rev like a pig for supposedly arranging the murder, Juicy considers it.
From there, in a tight one hour and forty minutes, the main plot elements are transformed, resulting in both laughter and sympathy.
I felt more sympathy for Juicy than I ever did for Hamlet. Juicy, like Hamlet, is a thinker rather than a doer, with ambitions that his family neither understands nor supports. Add to that, he is gay which to both Rev and Pap mean he is “soft” and to be bullied.
Later in the celebration, we have the arrival of Larry, his sister Opal and his mother Rabby. Think of them as Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius. Ijames has Rabby as a god-fearing, church-going older woman who is all too ready to comment about others. Larry is a Marine Corps member, and Opal is a young woman finding herself. Each is a stereotype, but Ijames turns them on their heads.
What is so much fun about the show is the way Ijames is faithful to the drama yet manages to add some twists that seem perfect. He also manages to let the characters behave as the original characters might want to, except for their regal positions.
Plus, he figures out a way to include the instructions to the players and the grave-digger’s soliloquy and other Shakespeare lines into the play.
Tedra,, played brilliantly by Nikki Crawford, is the outward expression of what Gertrude could be, if not for the requirements of royalty. She is flamboyant, in both clothes and actions. She wants to dance and hug and kiss. She admits she is not good at being alone and needs a man in her life. It is quite possible that Rev and she were an “item” long before Pap’s death. Billy Eugene Jones plays both Pap and Rev with an intensity and a casual cruelty that is often directed at Juicy.
Adrianna Mitchell as Opal, Calvin Leon Smith as Larry and Benja Kay Thomas as Rabby nail their characters.
You have a backyard set designed by Skylar Fox that is just tacky enough to be perfect. The costumes Dominique Fawn Hill created, particularly for Tedra are spot-on. No one is credited as the choreographer, but Tedra certainly has all the right moves.
Saheem Ali’s depth of understanding of the play – he has worked in the development of the work – is reflected in his smooth direction.
If you have read or seen Hamlet, you will enjoy this original take on the story. It would be a great introduction to theater for teens.
Fat Ham is at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street.