How do we revolutionize theater with a classical piece of text in a gatekept theatrical space? As “Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde says, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Fat Ham, inspired by the Shakespeare play Hamlet and currently produced on Broadway, arguably would not be able to change much by Lorde’s standards. However, I believe that the visibility proffered by a Broadway venue (even if Broadway can be largely inaccessible) on top of a widely known text gives a platform for revolutionary ideas and acts, which, in this case, take the form of reimagination.
Just as the tools we are given cannot dismantle the world that has come with them, when we imagine beyond what we are told, when we dream outside of the world we exist in, we are able to begin to see new possibilities of what society and communities could look like. In Fat Ham, playwright James Ijames and his characters dream bigger than Shakespeare, bigger than the new play’s contemporary backyard barbecue setting and consequent societal expectations in order to introduce to us a new way of thinking and being for the future of theater.
This Is Not An Adaptation
I have always been a Shakespeare kid. I remember A Midsummer Night’s Dream being the first of his plays that I read on my own. I was in my tween-hood and, for some reason, I thought his works were the coolest plays to exist (this has since changed, but I definitely still love many of them). When I began to perform in them, I thought there was a “right way” to “do Shakespeare.” The scansion had to be perfect, the characters had to be regal, the scenes had to be played a certain way. Where did I get these ideas from? No clue. Do any of them stand true? Absolutely not. I rarely saw people who looked like me, performing alongside me or in other pieces. I saw very little racial diversity or representation in Shakespeare across the board growing up, and rarely any deviation from what was considered “good Shakespeare.” For a long time there was, and in many cases still is, an unspoken standard, an unclear set of rules, an inaccessibility that surrounds Shakespeare and other canonized texts. I’ve been unlearning these ideas and practices, but with Fat Ham, James Ijames manages to respectfully and deliberately send all of those rules and regulations crashing down. Instead of seeing Shakespeare as untouchable, and myself as having to be perfect within it, Ijames makes room for our full selves in this new work. It’s a love letter to those of us who loved the Bard, but couldn’t see ourselves or be ourselves in it; it may also be a death knell for traditional beliefs surrounding Shakespearean performances that have become harmful and essentially useless. In all, Fat Ham is this Black, queer, classically trained actor’s dream, and the manifestation of everything I didn't know I needed regarding modern theater.
An experience that all three of us shared was the opportunity to study at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, where we were able to learn about original Shakespeare performances. As a ~Shakespeare girlie~, I loved that Fat Ham —without being a retelling of Hamlet, or even trying to be— took what was useful from Shakespearean practice to tell the story.
One such practice was the building of an actor-audience relationship. The Globe was/is an outdoor theater where everyone could see everyone else, in the audience and on stage. There was no fourth wall like what gets created in our modern-day Broadway houses - where the lights go down when the show begins and everyone has to be quiet, sit in their seat, and stay in their lane. Everybody was up and bustling during plays in Shakespeare’s time. And while that’s not super possible in the American Airlines Theatre (and even if it was, probably not conducive to the storytelling) the Fat Ham team did an incredible job of bringing the spirit of audience acknowledgment and participation to the production. Asides were addressed directly to the audience. Actors entered through the house, immediately expanding the world of the play from just the stage. Suddenly, we were all in Juicy’s (Marcel Spears) backyard for the cookout, where he tells us exactly what he’s thinking. We become his confidant, his sounding board, and his partners in crime. We become complicit. And it’s not only him— the other actors acknowledge us as well, always referring to the relationship we have built with Juicy, and often wary of what he has said about them. It skillfully facilitates an exploration of identity: what is being said about people, and does that align with who they truly are? What expectations are built from that? And what is our responsibility to them?
This play, from my perspective, dealt entirely in the denial of expectations. While yes, it is a reimagining of Hamlet, it is entirely its own story. I will say to you now: do not walk into this theater expecting to see Hamlet. It is not Hamlet.
It is, however, to me, a reclamation of space in a canon that has been made inaccessible and a theater league that has been, and still often is, exclusive. One that has only just started to let BIPOC folx in.
And I mean within my recent memory.
And I’m only 21.
The way that James Ijames has taken a story from a classic Western canon and reimagined it with people who look like me and my family and have intersectional identities similar to mine, and that they get to express those identities fully within and beyond the original story is, I’d argue, revolutionary. At every point and in every aspect, Fat Ham takes what we have learned to expect from Shakespeare and turns it on its head. We get a Hamlet who is, yes, moody and pensive, but who is also soft and playful and funny and, finally, relatable. Entirely different relationships are forged. It is, as Juicy tongue-and-cheekily says, “Shakespeare, kind of.” This play is an act of love to Black queer folx, saying that we belong in spaces that we haven’t always been fully welcome to. But that’s enough about the Bard, because if there’s one thing this play makes entirely clear, it’s that this is no longer only his story, but ours.
Within Fat Ham, Ijames is constantly challenging our expectations. This comes in the form of one of the characters, a devout Christian and commanding mother named Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), learning that both of her children are queer. At this point in a story, I’ve learned to expect the worst; we discussed how typically, we would see children get kicked out, disowned, and effectively traumatized after coming out of the closet. Instead of reacting with distaste or vitriol, the mother, though shocked, responds with humor and something akin to grace. As someone with family heavily involved in institutionalized religion, I’ve seen how it can encourage negativity towards queerness and know that there are many who struggle with the relationship between institutional religions and specific identities. Ijames, however, demonstrates that this does not have to be the case. He shows us that faith and queerness can happily coexist and even the most expectant of parents can (and should) accept and love their children as they are. This character models the behavior that I personally wish I could expect more of in society, and in this way, Ijames continues to show us that we don’t have to submit to the society we’ve been given, but can thrive in one that we create through our actions.
Within the play, each character has expectations thrust upon them: to take on the family business, to go to college, to serve in the military, etc. In a particularly poignant scene, and a moment of lightness, the younger characters– Juicy, Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith)-- reflect on and share what they dream of. Their dreams range from outrageous to mundane, but each is valuable and valid. Even in the act of dreaming, they are not only defying expectations, but beginning to manifest a reality for themselves that they truly believe in and want. Even in the simplest of wishes, they start to define their own lives by imagining the possibilities of what it could look like. This, to me, is a most radical act.
In order to believe we can change our society and our world, we have to be able to imagine what an ideal one would look like. By dreaming beyond their expectations, Juicy and the fellow “young people” of the play show us that as long as we have imagination and the bravery to take agency in our lives, we can create the world we want to live in. James Ijames, in imagining a new Hamlet that celebrates Black and queer identities along with a little bit of barbeque, opens the door to a theatrical landscape that is all at once an honor, a joy, a relief, and an inspiration to witness. My gratitude goes to all of the beautifully talented and committed actors for bringing this story to life, director Saheem Ali, and everyone on the design and production teams for bringing this play to the stage, and to James Ijames, for giving us this absolute wonder of a play, and showing us that our imaginations, dreams and wishes are not only valid, but absolutely necessary to uplift not only ourselves, but our communities as well.
The first time I kissed a girl, I felt the sun beaming through my lips. I was in the eighth grade and the pressure to choose who I would be for the rest of my life weighed on my shoulders. My parents named me Faith, and with that name came unattainable expectations; to become Faith, a vessel through which we communicated with God. Prior to the eighth grade, I stood in my name with pride. Proud to be somebody’s something.
Along with the sun in my lips, accompanying butterflies flew through my stomach. I knew my community well enough to know that Faith and Queerness were not in alignment. A friend once said to me, “If your parents don’t know you kiss girls, you shouldn’t be”. And because of this advice, I told my parents that I was kissing girls, because it was a feeling I never wanted to let go of. What ensued after that was no walk in the park. At a young age I had to teach myself about love and then embody it.
A key moment that stuck out to me in Fat Ham was the scene where both Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith) came out to their mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas). Because most plays that include a scene like this concludes with Black parents essentially saying, “fuck you.” They kick you out, and then you never speak to the parent again. In reality, it’s never really cut plain and simple like that to me. It is a complex experience in so many Southern families. And it is the years of going from point A of understanding to point C back to point B, to point D to point E-F-G-H back to point A, then finally arriving at point I. This is who I am, I’m going to learn to love every piece of me. And once I know that love, I will always share it.
You take a fat kid named Juicy (Marcel Spears), wider than the morning, with skin dark enough to find stars and a sound softly sibilant. His eyes do be brilliant and sad with a smile God revels in proudly—one of his own creation. To the passive eye, he is dusky, ignored, unheard, and not-of-value; but he is beautiful and soft, some might even say “opulent.” In his uncle Rev’s (Billy Eugene Jones) eyes, he is weak. He figured in life, he had to patchwork himself into everything he was not. A little bit more exercise, a little less time in the sun, a whole lotta bass to darken the bright in his voice, a little this, a dash of that. He grows to compensate for his lack with more jokes or maybe more silence. At times, he has to find the love in mistreatment instead of boundaries and standards. He accepts that sometimes love doesn’t always grace you sweetly but oftentimes comes violently. He also grows to love the sound of his mother Teedra’s (Nikki Crawford) voice–uses it like a balm for a long night. Because inside of a mother’s love is where that tenderness resides and rights this wrong world. You take the fat kid, give him another name—let's go with mine, Taj, with a candy bar in his right pocket and a Shakespeare sonnet in his left, with a playbill in his lap and a craving in his heart. Place him before a mirror that oddly resembles a stage and you let him see himself reimagined as the hero patchworked with everything already within him…see what it does…
See Juicy, a Black, queer, and “thicc” young man, who is deeply sensitive, meditative, and smart as he embarks on a journey where he must grapple with the acceptance of his mother and uncle’s matrimony […yeahhh girl], the death of his father, and finding where he fits into all of this family drama.
The identifying phrase “unlikely hero” comes to mind when I think about how we as an audience are supposed to react to a presence that is Juicy as our leading player. This initial urge, I believe, comes from a white-centric mentality that centralizes leading roles or Hamlet “types” to be our conventionally cast actors (aka cis-het white men). However, that isn’t really how I felt watching the play. Though, when the play first started and actor Marcel Spears walked out onstage as Juicy, I had already reached a point of catharsis—ask the white man sitting next to me, who was looking at me like “Girl…the play hasn’t even started yet.” But I believe my reaction is a testament to seeing Juicy not as an “unlikely hero” but “Finally! A hero seen!” A hero given a space to be heard and alluring and soft-spoken, yet we embrace him loudly and clearly. Because that’s a hero I relate to, who I am, who I’ve seen but is often shadowed behind voices we as an audience (and as a society) tend to hush to value the voice of someone who is white or in proximity to whiteness—hetero—masculine–slimmer—etc. And to be quite honest, the term “unlikely hero” used as a description for Juicy or this world Ijames has created, rubs me the wrong way because there is an underlying tone that says bodies like Juicy’s are “unlikely” to be anything more than what we have accepted the feminine, soft, and thicc person to be. Which leaves them written as voiceless and lacking agency and purpose other than to be support, the sidekick, the laugh, and/or the sounding board for someone else’s leading character and a colonized vision—I digress…
“When the father is too heavy and the son is too light. When the father thinks the son is too light, when the son is too heavy”- Juicy
After wiping a few tears, I sat back in awe of how masterfully crafted the character of Juicy was. Ijames wrote Juicy with such tenderness, care, and diligence. You see this love letter to Black queerness manifested in Juicy’s temperament, his language, his values and dreams, his aspirations, his love for his mama, and his acceptance and acknowledgment of the real truth in those around him. However, not only is the grieving of his father’s death and his distaste for the marriage between his mother and uncle the degree that separates him from the rest around him, but, his alienation also resides in how the essence of his being and his physical form epitomizes softness which furthers his Otherness.
If you observe the entirety of the stage, Juicy, as a Black man, is the only one who doesn’t fall into the canon of accepted Black masculinity. Rev, Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), and Pap (also Billy Eugene Jones) are all male entities that demonstrate and are praised for their masculine attributes. Rev being the “new man of the house,” his ability to throw down on the grill, his overly affectionate heterosexual romance with Tedra, and his slyness in how he got with Tedra. Tio being “the funny guy” and the high-horny best friend who fawns after Tedra (his own aunt, by the way!) with reckless abandon. Pap, who went to jail for killing a man and who is truly (along with his brother, Rev) the epitome of toxic masculinity. Larry being in the military and the way he holds himself around his family-friends, even Rev praises how strong and sophisticated his “posture” is. Interestingly enough, though is masc-ing behind this macho-military attire, he’s actually finding himself stuck in a place of wanting to be “soft” like Juicy and the fear of that.
You also have those characters that perpetuate the normalization of “the natural order of things,” like Rabby, the mother of Opal and Larry, and dear friend to Tedra, who enters the space enforcing gender roles onto her children and looks at Juicy as the funny one or even alludes to him being “un-Christian-like”. As well as Tedra, who isn’t exactly a perpetrator but rather an enabler of Rev to act the way he wants around the house and treat Juicy however he wants, in order to keep her man. This isn’t to say, she doesn’t love Juicy, because she absolutely does, which is evident because she also “enables” his softer ways and wants him to be happy.
I think what struck me the most watching the dynamics between Juicy and everyone else in the play was that even though there was verbal and physical violence committed against him, he had the ability to pull something out of everyone who hurt him. He had a way of extracting a softness that we hadn’t heard from them until that point. I think the most beautiful example of this is Juicy’s relationship with Larry. As said before, Larry is dealing with these unearthing discoveries about himself and his sexuality, and through that, he is exploring a budding queerness and attraction to Juicy–relating to him and wanting to kiss him, though (spoiler!) they never do in the play. Although they would try to back away from “[getting] deep” with Juicy, it was still beautiful to feel like the world of the play spun on Juicy’s axis.
To watch how this world beat on Juicy but also held him sweetly was an experience nuanced and gorgeous, however, strange to me. Strange because as a viewer, I’ve never seen a show written so close to home for me, that it felt like watching myself up there. It felt like Ijames decided he was gonna sit in the corner of my living room out in Queens and tell me my story. And to build upon why the ~queer~ feeling, it was also something new for me to see a Black, queer, plus-sized body to be embraced with not only love and care but to be desired—that was a feat for me. And I think that’s the beautiful part, that we as Black audience members could come in and see Fat Ham and feel like “ha! Yes!” He’s got it right. He’s found this beautiful equilibrium of pain and joy and hurt and love and t=e=n=d=e=r=n=e=s=s that can be found in the Black home. That often does feel heightened and Shakespearean, but also to know that our expansiveness and monument-like love and feelings don’t amount to a dead white man’s written creation of life or the obsession with Black trauma that Broadway and other capitalist=commercialized theatrical spaces indulge in. That we can simply live in a southern Backyard and shoot the shit and quarrel and go on with our lives.