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James Ijames and Saheem Ali Barbecue Toxic Masculinity in “Fat Ham”.


A conversation with FAT HAM's playwright James Ijames and director Saheem Ali, and writer J. Gabriel Ware

An old-fashioned backyard party in the American South: karaoke with good food, good drinks, good family fun. What could possibly ruin it? How about avunculicide?

That ominous threat looms over playwright James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning FAT HAM, a reinvention of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet. This new dramedy centers Juicy, a soft-hearted Black college kid who grapples with questions of sexuality and identity when the ghost of his father demands that he avenge his murder.

Directed by The Public Theater’s Associate Artistic Director/Resident Director Saheem Ali and co-produced by The Public and National Black Theatre, FAT HAM made its in-person world premiere at The Public’s Anspacher Theater on May 12 and will run through July 3. The cast includes Nikki Crawford (Tedra), RJ Foster (Understudy Rev/Pap), Tanesha Gary (Understudy Tedra/Rabby), Marquis D. Gibson (Understudy Juicy/Tio/Larry), Chris Herbie Holland (Tio),Billy Eugene Jones (Rev/Pap),  Alexandria Lewis (Understudy Opal), Adrianna Mitchell (Opal), Calvin Leon Smith (Larry), Marcel Spears (Juicy), Benja Kay Thomas (Rabby), and Matthew Elijah Webb (Understudy Larry/Tio/Juicy).

Ijames uses the bare bones of Hamlet and the Black family tradition of the backyard barbeque to build an exposé that makes a hilarious mockery out of harmful—and even deadly—concepts such as toxic masculinity and homophobia.

“It's able to be funny because it is ridiculous,” Ijames says. “If you get it in the right light, and under the right circumstances, homophobia is ridiculous. If you get toxic masculinity under the right microscope, it is a foolish sort of self-deprecating, self-denying absurdity.”

Not Quite Hamlet

Ijames fell in love with Hamlet while in college; he gravitated to the characters and the play has stayed with him ever since. However, he says teachers in his graduate training program told him he didn’t fit the Shakespearean mold.  

“And I knew it was mostly about the way I spoke, like my diction and all of that nonsense,” Ijames says.

So, he decided to take Hamlet and create a new story that captures the same scale of emotion and stakes, but in a tongue that resembled his own. Ijames, now based in Philadelphia, pulled from his own experiences growing up in Bessemer City, North Carolina.

He says he thought for just a second about responses he may get for tinkering with a Shakespearean classic, before he quickly pushed those worries behind him. Ali, on the other hand, relishes putting new spins on classics. Just last year, he directed Jocelyn Bioh’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Jocelyn Bioh’s Merry Wives, which is set in South Harlem “amidst a vibrant and eclectic community of West African immigrants." Also last year for The Public and WNYC, he directed Ricardo Pérez González’s Romeo y Julieta, a bilingual audio adaptation of the Shakespeare classic that starred Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Drama Desk Award winner Juan Castano. Before that, he directed The Public’s WNYC broadcast of Richard II, which was performed by a predominately BIPOC cast.

“I don't do a classic unless I'm kind of f***ing with it in some way,” Ali says. “Otherwise, I don't want to do it. I never would do it straight—no pun intended.”

Ijames and Ali first worked together a few years ago when Ali directed Ijames’ play Kill Move Paradise at NBT. After Ali became The Public’s Associate Artistic Director/Resident Director, he made it a priority to bring Ijames into the fold. He read FAT HAM and knew they had something special.

“[FAT HAM] actually moved the needle so much further in what I already had been doing in my own work with Shakespeare,” Ali says. “And the way that James [tackles toxic masculinity and homophobia] with his smarts and humor—it's delicious.”

FAT HAM made its world premiere as a digital production at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia last year and this year won the Pulitzer Prize. Ali says he will wait until The Public’s run is done to watch the digital production because he doesn’t want his own creativity and vision to be influenced by what has already been done.

A Story of Triumph, Transformation, and Bravery

Tucked behind the hilarity of FAT HAM lies a clear call for change. Whereas the characters in Hamlet fall victim to the vicious patterns that preceded them, FAT HAM is all about breaking toxic cycles and choosing “pleasure over harm.” This is especially shown through Juicy, who chooses to be his authentic self despite his uncle’s ridicule and attempts to toughen him up. And that, for Ali, is an inspirational breath of fresh air.

“I've had enough of the stories where the character didn't make it in whatever way, shape, or form,” Ali says. “To put out that energy of possibility and hope, for me, is crucial. Juicy has a bravery I wish I had when I was young. I really wish I'd been able to speak back to family members who had issues with the way I behaved or the way I seemed. And for me, it's about showing that kind of bravery and that on the other side of that bravery, there's hope. Those are the stories I want to see.”

And for those family members that may be sitting in the audience, Ijames hopes FAT HAM will be a transformative experience for them.

“I want them to walk away knowing that they are surrounded by a community of people that love them and want them to be better,” Ijames says. “I hope they walk away knowing that they're capable of being loving and tender. I grew up with men who I obviously knew loved me, but weren’t affectionate always, or their affection was in this sort of uncomfortable container, and you don't have to do that. I make my father hug me—like truly hug me. Like ‘No, we’re not doing this arm between us thing. We’re going to hug.’”

Ijames is considering reimagining two other Shakespeare plays to further prove that, despite what his teachers told him, these stories belong to him as much as they do to anyone else. And considering Ali’s predilection for such exploration, it’s likely that FAT HAM won’t be end of the Ijames-Ali combo.

FAT HAM began performances at The Public Theater on Thursday, May 12 and runs through Sunday, July 3.

J. Gabriel is a journalist and screenwriter from Detroit. He previously worked at ABC News where he worked on the assignment desk, and field produced for “World News Tonight with David Muir” and “Good Morning America" in New York and Los Angeles. His feature screenplay, Jakayla, won Third Prize in CineStory’s 2021 Feature Fellowship Competition. Follow him on Twitter @JGabinator.

This piece was developed with the BIPOC Critics Lab, a new program founded by Jose Solís training the next generation of BIPOC journalists. Follow on Twitter: @BIPOCCriticsLab.

TOP PHOTO: (from left to right) Chris Herbie Holland (Tio), Calvin Leon Smith (Larry), Marcel Spears (Juicy), Adrianna Mitchell (Opal); photo by Ambe J Williams

BOTTOM PHOTO: Marcel Spears (Juicy); photo by Joan Marcus