Theater Review: “Fat Ham” Cooks Up Family Drama Southern American Shakespeare Style

Kevin Taft reviews Fat Ham, James ljames’s brililant comedic retelling of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, now taking place in the American South and featuring a Black cast.
User Rating: 9

Direct from Broadway, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Fat Ham arrives at the Geffen Playhouse with the original cast intact.

Based loosely on William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” James ljames’s comedic retelling takes place in an American South – per lJames – “aesthetically in the four to six decades preceding the current moment.”

It follows Juicy (Marcel Spears), a queer, black college student, in the midst of decorating his family backyard to celebrate the recent nuptials of his wild-child mother Tedra (the Tony-Award-winning Nikki Crawford) to his preacher uncle named Rev (Billy Eugene Jones.) This is all a bit alarming to the family since Tedra’s husband died only the week before while incarcerated. She then marries his brother days later.

See Also: Theatre Review: “Message in a Bottle” Shines with Power and Empathy

Juicy, of course, is not having any of this. As a result, he is confronted by his father’s ghost (also Jones), who demands that Juicy kill his uncle to avenge his death, which he claims was arranged by his brother. He considers this because it’s the one way he can prove he’s the “man” his family doesn’t think he is.

Ah, the drama of familial relationships in Shakespeare.

Joining Juicy on his day of indecision and secret revelations (not to mention simply dealing with his self-centered mother and his unruly uncle) are his childhood friend Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), her brother Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb), their mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), and Juicy’s best friend Tio (Chris Herbie Jones).

While continuously filled with humor and playful backtalk, “Fat Ham” also achieves moments of tenderness and heart-wrenching reflection. Both Juicy and Opal are the gay kids in the family, and their individual struggles with being who they truly are amidst a family that hasn’t quite evolved into acceptance is touching. Tio’s extended monologue, which begins as a retelling of a dream where gingerbread men perform oral sex on him, becomes a meditation on being true to oneself and ending the harm that can engender itself when it’s not. He is the “fool” who has more wisdom than those around him would expect. He’s the porn-watching, joke-making, reefer-toking jokester who hides a deep mind under all the haze.

But this is mostly Juicy’s story. Aside from his indecision over whether to murder his uncle, he continues to gain acceptance from his mother, a long-lost love, and mostly himself. Shame is damaging in this family, and its poison runs deep, further exacerbated by generational trauma and race. These themes are handled with grace by Spears, a game and award-winning cast, and the beautiful words of Ijames.

As directed by Sideeq Heard (based on Saheem Ali’s original direction), this is a tender tale of a fractured family that comes together despite an underlying river of pain and joy. This afternoon of locking horns ultimately leads to a greater epiphany for all.

It’s a smart, intuitive, and empathic dramedy, bolstered by genuinely lived-in performances that draw us in and allow us to root for their rise out of the tragedies they’ve created.

“Fat Ham” runs through May 5th at the Geffen Playhouse, Westwood, CA.
For more information and for tickets, visit www.geffenplayhouse.org.

9
Amazing
Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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