Presented by The Huntington in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective
Written by James Ijames
Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb
Choreography by PJ Johnnie Jr.
Fight Direction and Intimacy Coaching by Jesse Hinson
Dialect Coaching by Adi Cabral
Voice Lessons by David Freeman Coleman
September 22 – October 29, 2023
Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
527 Tremont St
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Review by Kitty Drexel
Slang: Hard as a motherfucker. One can go haam for anything: Sports, homework, smoking, sex, drinking, driving, etc. From UrbanDictionary.com
Slang: A Ham is a burger with no bread. A loser, a peasant, a bum with no motion and no desire or solution to make some money. Whatever you do stay away from Hams they are contagious and NEED a vaccine. From UrbanDictionary.com
BOSTON, Mass. — 2023 Pulitzer-prize winning play Fat Ham is at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion now thru October 29. Stevie Walker-Webb brings James Ijames’ hilarious opus to Boston thanks to the collaboration of Front Porch Arts Collective, the Huntington, and Alliance Theatre.
Many modern Shakespeare productions claim to be for a new audience. Some of these productions are merely Shakespeare set in an urban environment or slightly updated to correct historical sexism, racism, or homophobia. There’s nothing wrong with maintaining this tradition.
Fewer Shakespeare productions are truly for a modern audience: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) summarizes the Bard’s works; Shit-Faced Shakespeare performs for improv-loving, alcohol-fueled audiences of frat-bros and frat-bro allies. Fat Ham truly goes where no modern production has gone before.
Fat Ham transcends a retelling of Hamlet. It doesn’t merely transpose the story of a young man bent on parricide/patricide because the ghost of his father visits him after his uncle marries his mother. It goes harder.
First, playwright Ijames translates Hamlet into Black American vernacular. Then, he contextualizes modern issues of toxic masculinity, queer Black identity, and intergenerational trauma cycles. Lastly, he makes it gut-splittingly hilarious.
It’s one thing to write a tormented drama about layered familial abuses that speak to decades of broken adults. Harming audiences with emotional violence is easy.
It’s another to make the drama so rich and the characters so full that they unite the audience in backyard BBQ karaoke. Healing audiences is uniquely challenging. Ijames speaks to the trauma of his chosen audience. How much you enjoy Fat Ham depends on how open you are to receiving these messages.
Juicy (Marshall W Mabry IV as our gloriously vulnerable, soft, and sweet Hamlet archetype) is decorating his backyard for a party when he’s visited by the ghost of his dad, Pap (James T Alfred). Pap tells Juicy that he was murdered by his brother, Rev (also, James T Alfred). Ghost Pap orders Juicy to kill Rev at the party.
Tedra, Juicy’s Mom (Ebony Marshall-Oliver giving her all on karaoke night), married Rev the same week Pap died. Rev is meaner than a dog and just as ugly. Family traits Juicy hopes to never inherit. The party celebrates their recent nuptials.
On the same day, Larry (Amar Atkins), Juicy’s childhood friend, comes home from duty as a marine hoping to reconnect with a big secret for Juicy. Opal (Victoria Omoregie), Larry’s sister, has a similar secret that isn’t for Juicy. Their mother Rabby (Thomika Marie Bridwell) wants to celebrate the Lord over a finely roasted pig with no secrets needed. Juicy’s friend Tio (Lau’rie Roach) is just trying to enjoy his gingerbread buzz.
The design work of Luciana Stecconi (scenic), Xiangfu Xiao (lighting), Aubrey Dube (sound), and Evan Northrup (illusions) cement the environment and reality of Juicy’s family’s backyard. Stecconi’s embellished the set with fine details such as brown grass, and rusted pipes to communicate the characters’ financial and emotional bankruptcy. Xiao, Dube, and Northrup transported the audience to even more alternate realities with spooky effects with dry ice and perfectly timed sunsets.
Marshall W Mabry IV spits Shakespeare with the same versatility as he does Ijames lines. They are brilliant in Fat Ham. Mabry has great timing and pacing as an actor; they bring true pathos to Hamlet’s story. Their voice nearly stopped the show singing “Creep.” Radiohead never sounded so devastated.
Theatre students, please take note: Mabry reads an audience exceptionally well. Fat Ham gets a lot of laughs. Mabry listened to the audience’s reactions and timed their lines after a laugh perfectly, without fail. Mabry estimates when a laugh is nearly over and says their next line so it is heard over the laugh but before the show’s pacing slips. It’s a learned and applied skill that takes both intuition and practice. It is the mark of good technique.
Thomika Marie Bridwell and Victoria Omoregie were great. It is always awesome to see local talent on the stage of a large (for Boston), professional company showing visitors how talented Boston’s actors are. We hope to see more of both this season.
Pap/Rev is a narcissist. I grew up in a home with a narcissist. Mine regularly performed the middle-class academic equivalent of renovating a functioning pink master bathroom with money that wasn’t his to assuage his fragile ego. Why pane a boarded-up window or fix a roof for everyone when you can serve your own selfish needs instead? Like Pap and Rev, our narcissist blatantly ignored the dilapidated house and minds of the people around him.
A narcissist is insecure and lacks empathy. Rev will always find fault in the vulnerable people around him. Even if Juicy attempted to change himself to appease Pap/Rev, Pap/Rev still wouldn’t magically morph into a moderately acceptable human. Juicy (and anyone who sees themself in Juicy) might as well stick to living their truth.
While I cannot fully understand Juicy’s predicament as a queer, Black man living in physical and emotional poverty, I sympathize with his predicament. I know firsthand that a narcissist believes he can do no wrong; his family can do no right. We weren’t poor, but our souls starved.
The only character with any hope of a positive outcome is Horatio. Lau’rie Roach as Tio has golden comedic timing. He’s a bright ray of sunshine on Fat Ham’s stormy day.
Shakespeare is not my thing. Inside, outside, modern, period, whatever: I don’t prefer it.
I liked Fat Ham. The characters got right to their points. Ijames didn’t mess around with the plot or fuss with unnecessary side characters. A lie was a lie was a lie. I laughed; I cried; I hooted with other audience members at appropriate moments. It was awesome!
I can appreciate that others might not find Fat Ham as awesome. As with any art, please do proper research before buying tickets. This show is deeply, enthusiastically, bodaciously queer. It confronts narcissism and toxicity in Black families head-on.
These might not be your theatre preferences. That’s okay. You do you.
Or, maybe give Fat Ham a try. The Pulitzer Prize Jury knows best what is deserving of awards. Trust them to know good art.
No Rosencrantzes or Guildensterns were harmed in the writing of this review.