Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Fat Ham

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 12, 2023

Fat Ham by James Ijames. Directed by Saheem Ali. Scenic design by Maruti Evans. Costume design by Dominique Fawn Hill. Lighting design by Bradley King. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Illusions design by Skylar Fox. Hair and wig design by Earon Chew Nealey. Fight director Lisa Kopitsky. Choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie.
Cast: Nikki Crawford, Chris Herbie Holland, Billy Eugene Jones, Adrianna Mitchell, Calvin Leon Smith, Marcel Spears, and Benja Kay Thomas.
Theater: American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street (Between 7th and 8th Avenues)

Marcel Spears and Billy Eugene Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fat Ham, James Ijames' fanciful Pulitzer Prize-winning riff on Hamlet that opened tonight at the American Airlines Theatre, takes a sad tale about bloody vengeance and reconfigures it into a joyful celebration of love and a quest for self-determination. And happily, not only has nothing been lost in the move to Broadway from the Public Theater where it ran from May to July of 2022, but much has been gained.

What remains blissfully in place is the same delightful cast and director Saheem Ali on hand to spread positive vibes and laughter in great abundance. But it is what has been gained that marks this as a most welcome addition to the Broadway season. For even though a demolition of the fourth wall is built into the script, with characters periodically acknowledging our prying eyes, there is now a lovely looseness to that relationship, giving the production a surprising sense of improv and intimacy in a venue that might well have overwhelmed things by distancing us from the action. You can't help but feel welcome, drawn in, and caught up in the story.

Fat Ham could easily have fallen down the Hamlet rabbit hole. The lead character, here named Juicy (Marcel Spears), is egged on by the ghost of his revenge-seeking murdered father Pap (Billy Eugene Jones). And, as in the Shakespeare play, Juicy's mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford), has married Pap's brother/killer, Rev (also played by Jones). That both Pap and Rev are nasty pieces of work and are especially cruel in their treatment of the self-proclaimed momma's boy, the "soft" (i.e. gay) Juicy, gives the moody young man plenty of cause to carry out what he reluctantly considers to be his destiny.

Forget Elsinore, though. Fat Ham is set, as the Playbill informs us, at a house in (take your pick) "North Carolina, or Virginia, or Maryland, or Tennessee. Just not Mississippi or Alabama or Florida," because, for this gathering of a Black family and their friends, "that's a different thing altogether."

The action takes place on and around a deck at the rear of the house. The occasion is a barbecue (you can almost smell the ribs cooking on the smoking grill), where everyone has gathered to celebrate the wedding of Tedra and Rev. There will be food and games and karaoke galore. And if we onlookers are not necessarily invited guests, we are their neighbors who can see and overhear everything except for what is taken indoors.

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The ever-obedient Juicy is there at the behest of his mom, and it is for her sake that he helps out and participates. But while he mulls over his situation, and, especially, whether he has it in him to carry out the violent act demanded of him by Pap's ghost, he is surrounded by supportive friends of his own age: Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), and his high-on-weed high-on-life cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), for whom acceptance and bliss are a given. Also on hand is Opal and Larry's mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), who shows up as if dressed for the church's Easter promenade (credit designer Dominique Fawn Hill for the splendid costumes).

Everyone in the cast has the chance to shine, and shine they do, from Nikki Crawford as Tedra doing an extravagantly over-the-top karaoke performance of the song "100% Pure Love," to Billy Eugene Jones nimbly juggling the roles of Pap and Rev, to Adrianna Mitchell's feisty Opal, to Calvin Leon Smith's stunning final appearance as a reborn Larry. Even Benja Kay Thomas' Rabby, who may seem to be disapproving of the younger generation, has a few surprises in store.

For his part, Marcel Spears as Juicy might bring to mind another Black, hefty, gay, and moody character, namely Usher from Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop. But if anything, he is the anti-Usher as he absorbs the shielding love with which he is surrounded, and learns that his destiny is his own to determine.

But let's give the last word to Chris Herbie Holland as Tio who, after regaling us with a colorful tale of a virtual reality experience involving a hot-to-trot gingerbread man, concludes by asking us all to "consider what your life would be like if you chose pleasure over harm." Now that is something to ponder over a plate of ribs and homemade potato salad.