Just as “one man in his time plays many parts,” stories live many lives as creators offer their takes on long-told stories.
Fat Ham is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning play from acclaimed, Philadelphia-based playwright James Ijames, offering a loose reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Bard’s original story, the titular prince of Denmark attempts to unmask his uncle as a murderer while grappling with his mortality.
In this latest retelling, audiences witness a more comedic, cookout-themed kick to the centuries-old tragedy. In Fat Ham, the focus is on a queer, southern college kid named Juicy – played by Marcel Spears (The Neighborhood), who is making his Broadway debut. Juicy’s a sensitive soul trying to find himself, but things turn rotten when his father’s ghost appears and demands his son avenge him. Rather than taking place in Denmark, all of this is set against a family barbeque.
Speaking with Wilma Theater in 2021, Ijames described his relationship with Shakespeare as “fraught” partially because his southern accent bumped up against the sensibility of speech class instructors while attending grad school. This strain on his dynamic with Shakespeare didn’t keep Ijames from falling in love with Hamlet. He explained that, with each new reading, he was drawn to a new set of themes within the text – from cycles of violence to what sons owe their fathers. Fat Ham represents Ijames interpreting those themes in the context of a contemporary Black family.
“I’m Black and from the South, and that drove my desire to play with people that sound and look like me,” Ijames said in an interview with TimeOut in February, speaking to Juicy’s “thicc” body type. “When you see productions of Hamlet, he’s usually white and sort of athletic. I wanted to make a version of this play that was open to a body type that wasn’t that.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the play was streamed in 2021 and wasn’t performed before a live audience until after it was awarded the Pulitzer-prize for Drama. Its off-Broadway production was mounted in May of 2022, mere days after Ijames accepted the Pulitzer. The Pulitzer Prize is far from the only accolade to Ijames’ name. He’s a founding member of Orbiter 3, a playwrights’ collective in Philadelphia, and has two Barrymore awards for acting as well as two more for directing.
This Broadway show keeps its predecessor’s director, The Public’s associate artistic director Saheem Ali, who also worked with Ijames on his last play, Kill Move Paradise, in which four Black men in an afterlife waiting room discuss their situation – in 2017.
Before Fat Ham, Ali made his name directing dozens of plays. These include two audio plays, a predominantly BIPOC production of Richard II in 2020 and a production of Romeo y Julieta with Lupita Nyong’o in 2021.
“James leaves enough room on the page for a director’s imagination, and that’s not always true about playwrights,” Ali told Theaterly in May of 2022 regarding working with Ijames. Leaping the off-Broadway production is the entire original cast which includes Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, and Calvin Leon Smith, among others.
On March 21, just before the production began running previews, Variety reported that Cynthia Erivo had joined the producing team for the show. Erivo is a prominent performer, having won a Tony and a Grammy award for her part in the 2015 production of The Color Purple. She also received two Oscar nominations for her work on the 2019 film Harriet. “I have been waiting for the right opportunity to return to the theater community and am thrilled to be back, this time as a first-time producer with Fat Ham,” Erivo’s statement to Variety read.
Acclaim and accolades have given prospective audience members more than enough reason to see the show. But whether individual audience members have been keeping up with the buzz, Ijames primarily wants his play to connect with those who come to this fictitious cookout. “I’d say, come and see it and have a laugh,” Ijames told the New York Times shortly after accepting his Pulitzer in 2022. “Come and see it and maybe see a version of yourself reflected back to you that you’ve never seen before.”
Fat Ham officially opens at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway on Wednesday, April 12, and is scheduled to play through August 6 this year.