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No Rules, Just Fight: “Fat Ham” reviewed

I’m not sure what the rules of sampling are anymore. Beyonce can repurpose Robyn S.’s “Show Me Love” and count it as its own entry on her discography, even winning a Grammy for it. This kind of “homage,” if you will, has also dipped into the Shakespearean canon; Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, a modernized retelling of King Lear, even won the Pulitzer Prize for it three decades earlier. So, too, did the Pulitzer committee award James Ijames’ Fat Ham last year in the Drama category. But where is the line between drawing inspiration and copying from source material? This production, which just opened at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre following a post-Pulitzer run at the Public Theater, toes the line (at best) in transferring some of Hamlet from Denmark to a North Carolina wedding celebration, but eventually, the central barbecue begins to feel more like a roast.

Our version of the sullen prince is Juicy (Marcel Spears, making an audacious Broadway debut), black, queer, and a little stuck in life. He is pursuing an online degree in human resources from the University of Phoenix (one of the play’s running gags) while living with his selfish mother, Tendra (Nikki Crawford), and his stepfather, Rev (Billy Eugene Jones) – who until recently was his uncle, when Juicy’s imprisoned father was shivved. The family is celebrating Tendra and Rev’s very recent nuptials at a backyard barbecue.

Shortly into Fat Ham, Juicy and his friend, Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) has an encounter with the ghost of his late father (also Jones). The ghost tells Juicy that Rev had him killed in prison while he was doing time for murder, and that Juicy needs to avenge his father’s death by not only murdering, but devouring, Rev.  killing — and eating — Rev.

So far, so close to Shakespeare. But for all of the elements of Fat Ham that Ijames has mapped to Hamlet – including a clever take on the players and a reference to Yoric – the show eventually spirals away from the original’s thematic material about passiveness versus impulsivity and infuses itself with a grab bag of moments, some of which make for very amusing onstage optics under Saheem Ali’s direction but none of which feel organic. When Ijames guides his characters, which also include Benja Kay Thomas as Rabby (Ijames’ take on Polonius), Adrianna Mitchell’s Opal (our Ophelia), and Calvin Leon Smith’s Larry (our Laertes) to speak about contemporary concerns with great cultural capital like generational trauma or queer struggles, it feels grafted on.

And while Ali’s production, which also includes great lighting and sound design from Bradley King and Mikaal Sulaiman, respectively, maintains energy through the end, the playwriting shows signs of ennui. The characters in Ijames’ world are familiar with Hamlet as a work, and are aware of the audience – but the play makes use of neither fact in any way, meta or otherwise. Fat Ham also includes several musical numbers – sung IN FULL! –including Radiohead’s “Creep,” the idea of which adds no new insight into the idea that Juicy might be an outcast, and a final number that doesn’t conclude anything; it only exists to provide a blaze of glory (but props are due to costume designer Dominique Fawn Hill). Threads don’t have to together completely in a dramatic work, but they can’t just be dropped.

And yet Fat Ham plays hide and seek with the slings and arrows it sets out to face head-on. By play’s end, Ijames has completely abandoned any real association with the gang from Elsinore, who fight comedically but are ultimately let off the hook from misdeeds and untimely ends. The two forces that make the biggest impression in the show are Maruti Evans, whose booby-trapped set design and sleight-of-hand continually grab the audience by surprise, and a marvelously malevolent Jones, who provides the show with its only true undertones of discomfort. They’re the ones most adept at finding true ingenuity in Ijames’ derivative work. As for the playwright, I’m willing to give him another chance – but he’s got to build his next work from scratch.

Fat Ham

American Airlines Theatre