Theater Review

Fat Ham Queers Shakespeare’s Hamlet

What if Hamlet was a plus-size, queer Black man? That is the question posed by playwright James Ijames in his Pulitzer Prize winning play Fat Ham which opened on Broadway in April 2023 and is playing now through May 5th at the charming and intimate Geffen Playhouse. Fat Ham offers a boldly imaginative reframing of Shakespeare’s play about the Melancholy Dane who is visited by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder at the hands of Hamlet’s uncle who has remarried his brother’s wife. Fat Ham takes this juicy stew of family dysfunction and turns it inside out, using it as a vehicle to explore sexual orientation and gender against the backdrop of deeply ingrained homophobia from the Southern Black vantage point.

Larry expresses his true feelings for Juicy.
Larry expresses his true feelings for Juicy in a private moment.

Heading up the cast is Marcel Spears as “Juicy” – the character inspired by Hamlet who finds himself grappling with the ghost of a father who wants him to avenge his death by killing his uncle – while grappling with the scars left by a father who never fully accepted him and continues to taunt him from beyond the grave for being “soft.” Spears pulls off the role with impressive finesse, balancing the humor and the pathos of this piece with dexterity. The cast as a whole are uniformly superb which makes this wildly unconventional play fire on all cylinders.

Billy Eugene Jones pulls double duty as the ghost of Juicy’s father referred to as “Pap” as well as Pap’s fratricidal brother “Rev” (short for Reverend), Juicy’s not-so- honorable uncle who married Juicy’s mother and off’d his father. As Pap’s ghostly apparition, Jones alternates seamlessly between over-the-top ghoulish fun and a father steeped in anti-gay tropes he’s incapable of overcoming. Nikki Crawford serves over-the-top “Black trash” camp as Juicy’s mother Tedra. Other standout performances include Benja Kay Thomas as Rabby who can steal a scene with a glance and Adrianna Mitchell as gender non-conforming Opal (Rabby’s daughter) whose deadpan delivery provides a hilarious counterpoint to her mother.

But perhaps the most interesting dynamic is between Juicy and his straight-passing childhood pal Larry who shows up looking dapper in his military uniform, but longs to break free of the straitjacket of the heteronormative culture Juicy has been bucking. Juicy and Larry seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, visually and otherwise, which is what makes Larry’s private protestations of love and lust for Juicy so jarring and poignant. And yet, the writer keeps the will-he-or-won’t-he tension taut until the very end, unveiling a surprise that feels cathartic and liberating.

Nikki Crawford and Marcel Spears star as mother and son in Fat Ham at the Geffen.
Nikki Crawford and Marcel Spears star as mother and son in Fat Ham at the Geffen.

With the full cast intact, straight from Broadway, Fat Ham is the theatrical equivalent of a lunar eclipse. It doesn’t happen all that often so when it does, you’d best make a mad dash to the box office and get yourself a ticket. The program includes a brief interview with the playwright who explains how the seeds for this play were planted when he was cast as Hamlet as a college freshman. Ijames was coming to terms with being gay at the time and one of Hamlet’s oft-quoted soliloquies seemed to speak directly to his own struggles. “I felt like no one in my family would ever accept me. But then in act three, Hamlet says he can’t not be who he is.” In this way, the play took on a whole new significance and justified his decision to make Hamlet queer, never suspecting that in so doing, he’d be joining the ranks of fellow distinguished Pulitzer recipients including Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

Fat Ham—March 27, 2024 – May 3, 2024. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024; (310) 208-2028. Tickets.

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