The anticipatory buzz surrounding James Ijames’ “Fat Ham” was apt prelude to its arrival at Studio Theatre. It had a sold-out run at the Public and then a stint on Broadway. This production is a wonderfully engaging, theatrical event. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Fat Ham” casts the classic family tragedy into a Black family’s backyard. Erstwhile Hamlet, Juicy and his pothead cousin, Tio, have fun matching him and the rest of this play’s characters to their Shakespearean analogs. They reminisce, explore self-revelation, and finally confront the soul-killing behavior of Juicy’s recently murdered father and his opportunistic uncle. The display of family dramas along the way is a joy to watch. Studio’s Artistic Director David Muse describes it as “a bracing confrontation of the toxic masculinity and homophobia that haunt Black culture.”
…a wonderfully engaging theatrical event…Shakespeare is likely laughing in his grave.
Upon entering Studio’s Mead performance space, it feels immediately like we have been invited to a picnic. A backyard smoker, lawn chairs, and many brightly colored balloons adorn a back porch in Jean Kim’s set design. Is it a birthday? Graduation? Then we glimpse a “Happy Wedding” banner hung far stage right. The festive atmosphere is heightened as Tio (the delightful Thomas Walter Booker) and Juicy (a thoughtful Marquis D. Gibson) take over the stage and the party preparations. We quickly learn that the wedding in question is between Juicy’s mother and uncle. In case we haven’t already figured it out, Tio, temporarily left alone in the backyard, is confronted by the ghost of Juicy’s father, recently murdered in prison. That’s right, this is “Hamlet.” But it is a Hamlet for our time, embracing polarities. What do we choose and what are we born into? What do we fear versus and what do we welcome? What do we accept and what do we deny?
The four younger characters—Juicy and Tio, joined by Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb) and his sister, Opal (a searingly funny Gaelyn D. Smith)—explore the results of parental neglect and abuse with passion and humor. It is jarring but very funny to hear Tio launch into a lecture about inherited trauma. The ghost of Pap (Greg Alvarez Reid) later explains to Juicy without irony or apology, “I messed you up. My dad messed me up. You’ll probably mess up your kid.” Webb, in a tightly controlled performance as a young Marine, has a stand-out moment when he confronts Juicy for revealing to Larry’s mother that her son is not who she thinks he is. “That wasn’t yours to share.”
The older generation—Juicy’s mother Tedra (Tanesha Gary), his uncle Rev (Greg Alvarez Reid), and Aunt Rabby (the hilarious Kelli Blackwell)—seem stunningly lacking in insight into the emotional lives of their children. Yet as the play proceeds, they admit awareness, even acceptance, of their offsprings’ sexual orientations. Their denial may have allowed them to survive, even thrive in their neighborhood. When forced to confront who their children are, what could have been a predictable tragedy is transformed by Ijames into a celebration of unconditional love. Shakespeare is likely laughing in his grave.
As one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the writing is superb and provides a lot for the actors to mine. We learn that Pap was in prison for the murder of Buggy—Pap was enraged by Buggy’s bad breath. I won’t soon forget the description of Buggy’s halitosis as “spoiled brains dripping down into the throat.” There is brilliant use of musical references, including Radiohead and Rick James (what better idol for the Rev?)
Taylor Reynolds, the OBIE-award winning director, has deftly meshed tragedy and comedy into an entertaining evening in the theatre. You need not be familiar with Shakespeare’s play to enjoy and emotionally engage with this production, but it is even more fun if bring your preconceptions with you to be challenged.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Contains haze, flashing lights, loud music, and sudden, loud noises.
“Fat Ham” has been extended through December 17, 2023, in response to overwhelming demand, at Studio Theatre 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC. For more information and tickets, go online or call the Box Office at 202.332.3300.