James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize winning Fat Ham has moved uptown, casting intact, offering exuberance, imagination, and irreverence to already crowded Tony worthy season. The boisterous domestic comedy, a take on “toxic masculinity and queerness” (program), is framed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet from which we hear several well integrated speeches and a few apt one-liners. Here, however – spoiler alert – the piece doesn’t end littered with corpses, but rather a buoyant celebration of the courage to be oneself.
Juicy (Marcel Spears) is gay, sensitive, smart and angry, looking for a way out through an online course in human resources. He and spaced-out best friend Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) are decorating Juicy’s backyard for the barbecue wedding celebration of his oversexed mom, Tedra (Nikki Crawford), and arrogant, pit-master uncle Rev (Billy Eugene Jones) who’s been “Stanley-steamering” her for some time. It’s only a week since Juicy’s father/Rev’s brother Pap was assassinated in prison. Holland hooks us from the get-go, glassy-eyed, great with vernacular, moving like a street dancer.
Adrianna Mitchell (Opal), Chris Herbie Holland (Tio), Marcel Spears (Juicy)
Said yard, in North Carolina (where the author was raised) “could also be Virginia, Maryland or Tennessee” (program) is skillfully created by Maruti Evans partly in structural 3-D, partly in giant photography. The show’s finale is a collectively created hoot. Props are just right. Sound and light, respectively by Mikaal Sulaiman and Bradley King, are supportive and distinctive, especially during otherworldly appearances.
The family owns a ribs restaurant, a neat reference to “funeral baked meats” from the marriage table of Gertrude and Claudius. A tossed off “there’s the rub” is the first of many Shakespearean quotes. If you know the play, it’s like finding Ninas. (The name of caricaturist Hirschfeld’s daughter hidden in much of his work.) Tedra and Rev have cashed in Juicy’s tuition money to renovate a bathroom. She wants to sell the restaurant, he does not. As with all things, she bows to his forceful exercise of testosterone.
Marcel Spears (Juicy), Calvin Leon Smith (Larry)
Unexpected flight of a red checked table cloth heralds the appearance of Pap’s ghost (also played by Jones) who intermittently pops up from extremely unlikely places. (A later trick utilizing the cloth is nifty – Skylar Fox – Illusions Design.) Juicy’s dad was murdered by an assassin who communicated regards from Rev. The ghost orders his son to step up like a man and kill Rev. That he does so with extended ugly disparagement gives us a good picture of the relationship of father and son. “What do you do when God don’t want you and the Devil won’t have you?” Juicy muses. Is the boy capable of murder?
Also at the party are Tedra’s overbearing friend Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas – completely natural), Rabby’s willful, gleefully violent daughter Opal (Adrianna Mitchell, whom I found self conscious in this iteration), and her spit-and-polish Marine son Larry (multi-talented Calvin Leon Smith). A surprising speech by Larry to Juicy stands out even immersed in otherwise superb writing. Both kids have been forced into their mother’s ideal image of them. The characters conceivably represent Ophelia (without romance) and Laertes. Unbeknownst to her, they’re both gay.
Nikki Crawford (Tedra), Billy Eugene Jones (Rev), Benja Kay Thomas (Rabby), Marcel Spears (Juicy), Adrianna Mitchell (Opal), Calvin Leon Smith (Larry)
James Ijames’s Fat Ham proceeds at an eruptive, entertaining clip. Intermittent dissolving of the fourth wall about which characters are inevitably suspicious. “What you telling them?” is tossed with karaoke, charades (“to catch the conscience of the king”-Shakespeare), aspirations, accusation and bloodless violence (excellent work by fight director Lisa Kopitsky). Stage directions read: “The play cracks open.” The piece takes an iconic bloodbath of desire, madness and vengeance and turns it into a dramady bouffe leading us to feel sideswiped but smiling. Employment of the bard’s tale is clever. Fat Ham is as original as it gets.
Inhabiting the role of Juicy’s mom, Nikki Crawford channels ebullient sexuality and joy of occasion on one hand, yet on the other, awareness that submission (to Rev) is destructive to both Juicy and herself. A fine line well walked. As Rev and Pap, Billy Eugene Jones is stunningly hateful, determined, and cocky.
Marcel Spears (Juicy) and the company
Marcel Spears (Juicy) is marvelous. The emotional axis on which his complex and conflicted character turns is consistently believable. The character has defended himself as best he can. When restraint dissolves, control does not. Dignity is omnipresent.
Director Saheem Ali (Associate Director/Resident Director of the Public Theater) helms an explosion of eye-opening storytelling. Pacing, attention to detail, aesthetics, and characterization are accomplished. My sole caveat is that some of the actors speak vernacular too quickly, slurring and hampering comprehension.
Inspired choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie shines with every character’s organic physical expression. Raunchy movement executed by Tedra during her karaoke solo is terrific.
Costumes (Dominique Fawn Hill) are wonderful. From Rabby’s purple, over the top, Sunday-go-to-church ensemble to Tedra’s revealing, sequined get-up and Juicy’s hip/hop layers to Larry’s chocolate soldier change over. Earon Chew Nealy’s wig design enhances.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Marcel Spears (Juicy), Billy Eugene Jones (Pap)
Fat Ham by James IJames
A Co-production of The National Black Theater and The Public Theater
Directed by Saheem Ali
American Airlines Theater
227 West 42nd Street