“If you bring up that dead old white man one mo time.” A Review of Fat Ham
Ekemini saw Fat Ham for the second time. Still slaps.
Because I am a very unserious person, I saw H*mlet [derogatory] for the first time not even a year ago. So while I am one of the Blessed and Highly Favored who saw Fat Ham at the Public last year, the Broadway transfer was my first shot at the show with the “appropriate” background knowledge.
“Appropriate” is in quotes, because Fat Ham is as much a show about Black (namely, southern African American) life as it is a show about H*mlet, and I think it’s worth acknowledging that a Shakespearean scholar who is neither knowledgeable about Black life nor in community with Black people is working from as much of a deficit as a Black Shakespeare layperson.
That said, for me, (Hora)Tio delivers the thesis of the production:
“You decide right then to stop accepting what has always been.”
Fat Ham is approximately what would happen if all story beats of H*mlet took place during the Act I wedding party. Juicy (Marcel Spears) has been tasked by his pappy (Billy Eugene Jones) with killing his uncle Rev (also Billy Eugene Jones). Rev had his brother killed, then married his brother’s wife, Tedra (Nikki Crawford). Orbiting around the nuclear family are cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), best friend Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), Opal’s brother Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), and Opal and Larry’s mom Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas).
Everyone in Fat Ham is spectacular. Spears shines as the anchor of the show. I’ve been on the Billy Eugene Jones bandwagon since Where the Mountain Meets The Sea, and he only reaffirms my stanning here. Tio and Rabby are both characters that could easily be characters who flanderize themselves in real-time, but Holland and Thomas walk the line between ludicrousness and clarity beautifully. Mitchell and Smith deftly foil each other, and in doing so, emphasize their characters’ respective relationship to masculinity. And Crawford does a lot of heavy lifting to inspire a reason for Gertrude to marry her husband’s brother besides “because Shakespeare said so.”
And since Shakespeare is in the room with us right now, let’s get into H*mlet for a minute. Shakespeare is the world’s most famous playwright, and H*mlet is certainly one of his most famous plays. Honestly, it was almost courageous of me to have been a theatre-maker for so long with only The Lion King and a prayer as my guides. (Halalela).
I almost don’t want to say it. It’s a cliche that can apply to almost any play written by a white person before 1975
at least, but H*mlet was not written with Black people in mind.
It’s worth mentioning though, because a major part of Fat Ham’s genius is that functions beyond representation matters!!!™. Ijames isn’t superimposing Shakespeare onto Black bodies; he is contending with the tensions that arise when you make Black people (with actual agency) move through a white script. And in this play, a major part of that script is violence.
As my King, Tio says:
“These cycles of violence are like deep. Engrained. Hell, engineered. Hard to come out of. Like, your Pop went to jail, his Pop went to jail, his Pop went jail, his Pop went to jail and what’s before that? Huh? Slavery.”
And while I, for one, am good for blaming racism on even the most inappreciably related inconveniences (I missed the train? Now what would Malcolm X say?) I have to give credit where credit is due; these Black men took slavery’s teachings of brutality and ran. Pap decapitates a man because his breath stank. Rev has his brother shanked to death. And as much as Juicy claims to be not like other girls, he eventually demonstrates his own capacity for brutality. To steal Opal’s line, “niggas think they more complex than they are.”
But despite this, the characters in the play fight back. Larry, a soldier, yearns to be soft and loving. Opal is constantly pushing against her mother’s circumscribed ideas of womanhood. None of the young people in this play are straight. Even Pap, for all his ain’t sh*tness, was totally cool with his bathroom being pink from top to bottom.
And as seemingly insignificant as these struggles may feel, they matter. If I can be a sociologist for a second, the tension rings of Hegelian dialectics; the struggle amounts to higher, more sophisticated truths. Truths that reject the inevitability of masculine violence, whiteness, and perhaps even of Shakespeare himself.
I’m unserious enough to be curious about where we might land on the other side of Shakespeare. And I think Fat Ham is as well.
Ekemini’s rating of “Fat Ham”
Fat Ham was written by James Ijames, directed by Saheem Ali, and features Nikki Crawford, Chris Herbie Holland, Billy Eugene Jones, Adrianna Mitchell, Calvin Leon Smith, Marcel Spears, and Benja Kay Thomas. It is running until June 25th at the American Airlines Theatre.
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