Profundity can appear in the most unexpected places. In James Ijames outrageous tragicomedy Fat Ham, it shows up in the middle of a weed-induced monologue about fellatio given by a gingerbread man. (The descriptive “outrageous” is not hyperbole.) In it,Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) questions the status quo of humanity, “You begin to consider what your life would be like if you chose pleasure over harm,” he says. “You consider what that world can be like. What if you imagine the world differently? Why waste it trying to be miserable cause it’s gonna make somebody else happy. Be happy.”
Tio is one of several colorful characters seeking happiness in this domestic tale that skillfully combines revenge with the ridiculous. He’s the cousin and longtime best friend of our protagonist, Juicy (Marcel Spears). Juicy is a young, introverted queer black man who has just lost Pap (Billy Eugene Jones), his father. Less than a week after his death, Juicy’s uncle, Rev (also played by Jones) has run off with Tedra (Nikki Crawford), Juicy’s mom and our leading man smells something rotten: Rev killed Pap and must be avenged.
If the plot sounds familiar, think seventeenth century Shakespeare. Sure, it’s Hamlet but Ijames took the well-known play and has turned it completely upside down so that only the bones—literally and metaphorically- remain. Instead of Denmark, we are now transported to the American south (“inside the second decade of the 21st century”, according to the script) where a friends and family barbecue is about to commence and secrets will be unraveled.
Fat Ham, which was awarded the Pulitzer prize for drama earlier this month, is a joint production between the Public Theater and the National Black Theater—a collaboration that has existed since 1968. Although the work premiered at the Wilma Theater (where Ijames is artistic director) in a filmed 2021 version, this is the first live production—and it’s been well worth the wait.
Director Saheem Ali has assembled a stellar cast that serves this material with delicious perfection. There are literal laugh out loud surprises and scene stealing moments which keep the action moving at a brisk pace. Yet Ijames also offers some occasions for genuine introspection, forcing us to question how the brokenness of our past stymies our ability to find present joy.
It’s a rare treat when a show can leave you euphoric days after you leave the theater, but Ijames has given us such a gift. As dour, daily headlines plague the world it comes at an ideal time. Be happy? With Fat Ham, it’s impossible not to be.
Fat Ham runs through July 3rd at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place). For tickets and information, click here.