There is only one thing that makes me wish I wasn’t studying abroad this semester — Fat Ham, a comedy written by James Ijames, is on Broadway and I really want to go see it. The play ran from May to July last year at the Public Theater in New York, after premiering as a streaming production (thanks, pandemic) at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater and winning the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Fat Ham, a comedic reinterpretation loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, caught my eye for two reasons: I had just finished writing a paper on a modern-day Shakespeare adaptation, and Colman Domingo (who plays Ali in Euphoria) is co-producing the play. He posted about it on Instagram — and yes, I follow Domingo on Instagram.
Memorable adaptations of Shakespeare are few and far between. As much as I enjoy Shakespeare on its own, it’s only when writers bring something new and personal to the table does the piece really become exciting.
What’s great about Fat Ham, judging by the few clips and trailers I could find, is how it manages to play around with borrowed bits of Shakespeare material in a grounded, light-hearted manner. A good portion of the play goes down around a backyard cookout, where everybody prays before the meal: “it’s my attempt to bring the black South closer to these plays and to Shakespeare’s language,” Ijames says in an interview with PBS.
I mean, really, what does Shakespeare have to do with it? “It’s my conversation with Shakespeare,” says Ijames, “it’s me trying to, like, talk to the guy.” In the world of drama and theater, Shakespeare is a beacon of legitimacy and legibility. What is at stake is not to overrule but to overwrite: Ijames loves Shakespeare, but there has to be a necessary distance that allows Fat Ham to stand its own ground. Take this moment for example, when Juicy, the Hamlet-equivalent protagonist — but this time a queer college kid studying human resources — addresses the subject of Shakespeare itself. The play becomes self-aware, interrogating its own legacy:
– You watch too much PBS.
– If you bring up that dead old white man one mo time … Don’t nobody wanna talk about his ass. You act like he got all the answers. You look crazy out here quoting Shakespeare and shit.
– Well, it seems appropriate.
– Appropriate my ass.
By bringing in Shakespeare and making him somewhat irrelevant, James Ijames re-establishes his own authorship: Fat Ham is entirely Ijames’ narrative. “He can’t say much to me now,” Ijames replies when asked about the Bard. But it’s really more delicate: a good portion of Fat Ham reenacts Hamlet, namely the uncle who murders the father and the son who seeks revenge. The similarities, however, end there. In Fat Ham, we are in the close quarters of a black family in North Carolina, where Juicy argues with his mother over a round of charades, and begins to consider his inherited trauma (“Look, I’ve been talking to my therapist about you,” begins Tío, Juicy’s best friend). Ijames majorly rewires the tragedy that undergirds Hamlet, making Juicy decidedly “soft” (wearing a shirt that says “mama’s boy”) and vulnerable, broaching topics like therapy and cycles of violence.
Fat Ham is not delivered in the language of Shakespeare. Instead of finding comfort in a canonical reproduction where actors all speak in iambic pentameter, the play expresses its lyricism free from the constraints of traditional English verse. The language that Ijames brings to life situates us definitively in the American South. Here, the trials and tribulations that Juicy goes through are more important than symbolic revenge, and Ijames values healing and collective joy above the tragic beauty of a bloodbath. On a set that resembles the home he grew up in, Fat Ham is much closer to Ijames than it is to Shakespeare.
The National Black Theatre’s first production on Broadway, Fat Ham is part of an emerging body of work written by young black playwrights. Among them is Michael R. Jackson, whose heartfelt musical A Strange Loop (also previously on Broadway) deals with an artist’s self-doubt and the predominantly cis-gendered, white theater scene. While Fat Ham comments on the legacy of Shakespeare, A Strange Loop comments on the popularity of an older black playwright, Tyler Perry. Departing from plays like A Raisin in the Sun that sought to speak for a black public in the 1950s, the works of Jackson and Ijames both aim to challenge and provoke.
I cannot stress enough the importance of experiencing theater live. Fat Ham, like Hamlet, needs to be experienced in a physical space — an emotive space of tension and joy at that. No amount of silent script-reading will substitute for the intentional and oriented design of a live theater set; and the ephemerality of live performance makes it extra sacred. Please go see Fat Ham on Broadway — I want to hear all about it.
Skylar Xu is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Seeing Double runs alternate Thursdays.