By Tulis McCall

“What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason.”

How often have you heard those lines?  Probably too often.  So often that you kind of sort of know these lines.  Well, my friends, you can take all of that and lay it aside because in this production of “Fat Ham” now at the Public Theater James IJames turns Shakespeare inside out and then some.

This is not one of those Shakespeare productions set in present day, or any other day that is not the 17th century – with costumes and scenery to indicate as such.  This play is set right now.  In the back yard of an ordinary 1970’s style house somewhere woodsy. This is the retelling of Hamlet, using the barest of threads.  And it ALL works, thank you very much.

Our guide on the train is Juicy (Marcel Spears) who is described in the script as being thicc.  Look it up.  He is a gay young man, feeling alone, studying for a college degree online and watching his mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford) be royally hoodwinked by his own uncle, Rev (Billy Eugene Jones).  Juicy’s father Pap (Also played by Mr. Jones) died a week prior and Rev slid into the empty spot in Tedra’s bed without a whiff of resistance on her part. Today is the wedding day and the reception/cookout/rib roast – complete with decorations that clash in the extreme – is about to take place.  The immediate circle is invited.  Juicy’s family, Tio (Chris Herbie Holland who speaks at the speed of light), Tedra’s bestie Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas) in her best Sunday-go-to-meeting outfit, and Rabby’s two children Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) who is wearing a dress against her wishes and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith) who is wearing a dress in the form of his Marine uniform because he wants to make an impression.

The only uninvited person who shows up is Juicy’s father, Pap, who is literally steaming over his own death.  He swoops into the back yard when Juicy is alone and makes it known that Juicy must pick up the gauntlet and avenge the death that Rev orchestrated.

Let’s be clear – Juicy is about as fierce as the Velveteen Rabbit, so this assignment is not only a shock, it is impossible.

Or is it?

In the space of a very few minutes we see Juicy morph from innocent and lost to thoughtful and calculating.  If his father’s ghost is telling the truth, then this unexpected plot twist bears attending to.

And it is definitely a plot twist.  In this production the characters know we are there. The fourth wall is dropped as casually as a handkerchief, and restored in the same breath.  Juicy is at the center of the tale like the eye of a hurricane.  He watches the other characters spin out like an angler studying his catch. The tale is multi-layered, and this cast, guided by the direction of Saheem Ali keeps all the balls in the air.  This is a superb ensemble.

The story plays out and maintains a distant connection to Hamlet’s plot.  Various deaths are avoided, new calamities are introduced, and the tale arrives at a thundering conclusion.  Or should I say conclusions.  Like the last few minutes of a championship basketball game, in the last few minutes of this play fortunes twist and turn, zig and zag.  We surrender and follow apace.

So invested are we in “Fat Ham” that, when the final-final rolls out, our brains explode like cannons of confetti and we are swinging from the rafters.

This is a soaring production disguised as a simple play.  Hah!

FAT HAM by James Ijames, directed by Saheem Ali

The cast of FAT HAM includes Nikki Crawford (Tedra), Chris Herbie Holland (Tio), Billy Eugene Jones (Rev/Papp), Adrianna Mitchell (Opal), Calvin Leon Smith (Larry), Marcel Spears (Juicy), and Benja Kay Thomas (Rabby).

The production features scenic design by Maruti Evans, costume design by Dominique Fawn Hill, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, hair and wig design by Earon Nealey.

EXTENDED Through July 17, 2022 – TICKETS

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