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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, April 17, 2024

‘Fat Ham’ has a feast with Shakespeare at The Huntington

Playwright James Ijames’ modern adaptation of “Hamlet” is worth the watch.

James T. Alfred, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Thomika Marie Bridwell, Marshall W. Mabry IV, Victoria Omoregie and Amar Atkins are pictured in "Fat Ham."

James T. Alfred, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Thomika Marie Bridwell, Marshall W. Mabry IV, Victoria Omoregie and Amar Atkins are pictured in "Fat Ham."

“Hamlet” is one of William Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies. At over 4,000 lines, it’s also his longest. But in the hands of playwright James Ijames, it turns into something completely different: a fast-paced, darkly comedic adaptation for the modern era that explores family, identity and toxic masculinity in an exciting way.

Ijames’ play, “Fat Ham,” won a Pulitzer Prize for its 2022 Off-Broadway debut and just wrapped up a critically acclaimed Broadway run this summer. The Huntington, in collaboration with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective, has brought the show to Boston, playing now through Oct. 29 at the Calderwood Pavilion. Directed by Tony Award nominee Stevie Walker-Webb, “Fat Ham” is a joyfully modernized take on the Shakespeare classic that boasts a clever script, a talented ensemble and finely crafted design elements.

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Courtesy T Charles Erickson / The Huntington

Marshall W. Mabry IV and Lau’rie Roach in "Fat Ham."

Ijames sets his story at a backyard barbecue in the American South, and his protagonist is Juicy (Marshall W. Mabry IV), a young Black queer man navigating his identity and the recent death of his father (James T. Alfred). Just a week after his father’s death, Juicy’s mom is planning to marry his uncle Rev (also played by Alfred), and the family is gathering for a barbecue to celebrate. Á la “Hamlet,” the ghost of Juicy’s father, arrives on the day of the barbecue, calling on Juicy to avenge his death by killing his uncle. In this version, Juicy’s anger towards his uncle is complicated by the cycles of violence and trauma his family has faced (his father was in jail for murder when he was killed) and his wishes to find a new path for himself outside of the family barbecue business.

However, the story isn’t all doom and gloom. Tio (Lau’rie Roach), Juicy’s stoner cousin and Ijames’ version of Shakespeare’s Horatio, acts as a wonderful comic foil, particularly in one absurd monologue where he describes a sexual encounter with a gingerbread man in a virtual reality game. Juicy’s mother Tedra (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) is a tenacious presence onstage, caught between her love for her son and the demands of Rev, her husband-to-be. But the strongest performance comes from Mabry, whose sympathetic portrayal of Juicy is layered with melancholy and determination. During karaoke at the family barbecue, Juicy sings Radiohead’s “Creep” (1992) — a cliché song choice, but one that plays to Mabry’s vocal strengths and taps into the emotional core of his character.

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Courtesy T Charles Erickson / The Huntington

Marshall W. Mabry IV is pictured in "Fat Ham."

Mabry’s Juicy also gives “Fat Ham” a direct link to its Shakespearean lineage. The most reserved and intellectual member of the family, Juicy delivers his own versions of Hamlet’s soliloquies directly to the audience, reciting some of the play’s most famous lines, like “What a piece of work is man” and, all too fitting for a barbecue, “Ay, there’s the rub!” Outside of these moments, the casual theater-goer might forget about the play’s Shakespearean roots — but maybe that’s a good thing, allowing the show to truly take on an identity of its own.

Ijames, like many of the best modern playwrights, knows how to mix tense dramatic moments with laugh-out-loud comedy, and makes a show with zero set transitions and a small cast feel lively and dynamic. He writes characters that feel familiar but not stereotypical, and conversations that feel organic and often genuinely funny. Walker-Webb’s staging effortlessly heightens the tensions between the characters, and the show is bolstered by its excellent design elements: Celeste Jennings’ costumes emphasize each character’s efforts to uphold or subvert societal expectations and Luciana Stecconi’s simple but elegant backyard set tells us so much about the family at the center of the story.

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Courtesy T Charles Erickson / The Huntington

James T. Alfred, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Victoria Omoregie and Thomika Marie Bridwell in "Fat Ham."

While Juicy spends almost the entire show onstage, he’s not always the center of attention. The biggest personality onstage is often James T. Alfred, who embodies the dual roles of Pap and Rev with fatherly authority and machismo. As the ghost of Pap, he encourages Juicy to continue the cycle of violence by killing his uncle, and, as Rev, he bullies Juicy for refusing to act like a man. Rounding out the ensemble are Rabby (Thomika Marie Bridwell), Tedra’s friend from church and Ijames’s stand-in for Polonius, along with her daughter Opal (Victoria Omoregie) and son Larry (Amar Atkins). Omoregie brings a joyful energy to Opal, Juicy’s childhood friend, and Atkins gives a standout performance as Larry, a Marine burdened by post-traumatic stress disorder and held back by society’s expectations of men until Juicy helps him discover his true self.

The show’s final moments feature some clever fourth-wall breaks and allusions to the play’s original source material (“You quote that dead-ass white man one more time!”), and the story doesn’t end in the way you might expect. Although the final moments of the play are a little too on-the-nose at times, its final message is certain to stick with audiences after they leave the theatre: What could life be like if we choose pleasure over harm? If “Fat Ham” is any indication, things might be a whole lot better.

Summary James Ijames’ darkly comic modern adaptation of “Hamlet” excels with a talented cast and a revised story.
4.5 Stars