Review | ‘Hamlet’ meets southern barbeque in ‘Fat Ham’

Photo by Joan Marcus

“It’s Shakespeare. Kind of…This is a tragedy. We tragic.”

So explains Juicy, a queer Black youth, who also happens to be “a kind of Hamlet,” in “Fat Ham,” James Ijames’ boisterous, tenderhearted, and Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary reinvention of Shakespeare’s tragedy set at a backyard family barbeque in the South, which has transferred to Broadway following an earlier Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater last year and a filmed version by created by the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia.

As it begins, Juicy (Marcel Spears, introverted and enigmatic) is blowing up balloons and putting up Christmas lights in preparation for a makeshift, last-minute barbeque to celebrate the marriage of his mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford, deliriously upbeat) to his uncle Rev (Billy Eugene Jones, virile and threatening) mere days after the murder of his father Pap (Jones again), a butcher and restaurant owner who himself was in prison for committing murder.

As Juicy’s cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) watches porn on his cell phone and practices sex moves, the ghost of Pap (wearing a sheet, apparently to draw attention to himself) makes an appearance and subsequently demands that the soft and sensitive Juicy avenge his death.

Soon enough, more party guests arrive, including Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), a tough lesbian version of Ophelia, and her brother Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), a marine who is attracted to Juicy and apparently a spinoff of Laertes, and their loud churchgoing mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), a spinoff of Polonius.

Karaoke and charades segue into one of Hamlet’s soliloquies and various other quoted lines (with “there’s the rub” referring to meat seasoning), one death (far less than in “Hamlet”), intimate revelations, and a feel-good fantasy drag finale.

While the play (which runs just under two hours without intermission) does drag at times, it makes for a fresh, fast and loose adaptation with a keen awareness of masculinity, violence, and family dysfunction.

As led by an excellent ensemble cast, the solid production (directed by Saheem Ali) successfully balances the play’s intimate emotional moments, terrific stagecraft (including surprise entrances and exits by the ghost) and far-out comedy.

Judging by the young and diverse crowd at the performance I attended, “Fat Ham” was well worth bringing to Broadway and has the potential to bridge the gap and attract theatergoers who are intrigued by its “Hamlet” angle and others who are more interested in modern cultural identity. Perhaps a future production will take place at an actual outdoor barbeque, where theatergoers can dine on ribs and beer along with the characters.

“Fat Ham” runs at the American Airlines Theatre through Aug. 6. 227 W. 42nd St., fathambroadway.com.