"He is dead and gone lady./ He is dead and gone..."

The Pulitzer-Winning Fat Ham Takes the San Diego Stage at The Old Globe

m as Opal, Xavier Pacheco as Tio, Tian Richards as Larry, and Ṣọla Fadiran as Juicy in Fat Ham, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.
There have been various pop takes on Shakespeare's Hamlet throughout the years like Mel Gibson's film version which there's a reference to that I love, in the movie Clueless, and of course, The Lion King. Oh, and now that I think about it, this is the second time I have mentioned Clueless for something this year, and I am not ashamed lol.

Anyway, I preface this for you to come along for the ride in my brain as I share my thoughts on what Playwright James Ijames did with Fat Ham which premiered in 2021 as a filmed production, to then go Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 2022, and debut on Broadway the following year. The play was awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Play. Ijames uses Shakespeare's Hamlet as a mold to take off into another ethos to expose generational trauma, abuse, acceptance, ownership, and other familial and life matters within a Black family. Let me start by saying that the title Fat Ham, is fantastic. Second, this play was not one hour and 50 minutes as advertised, it was two hours and five minutes with NO intermission, which even though I love one acts and no intermissions, this length of a piece without one, is sacrilege. Especially with The Globe audience, like come on guys, read the room! People would constantly be getting up and out, coming back in and it was just too much and too distracting as actors were coming in and out through the theatre as well. 

Tian Richards as Larry in Fat Ham, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

After my logistics peeve, continuing with the story, Juicy (Ṣọla Fadiran), is prepping the family's backyard for a BBQ celebration regarding his mother Tedra's (Felicia Boswell) nuptials with Juicy's uncle, Rev (Ethan Henry). Juicy's friend Tio (Xavier Pacheco) is helping with the decor when both he and Juicy in separate turns see the ghost of Pap (also Ethan Henry), Juicy's dad who passed away recently, while incarcerated. Ethan Henry plays with the audience who were both startled and marveled by Skylar Fox's Illusion Design that involved haze, flying tablecloths, and disappearing bodies cleanly and creatively that uplifted the tale. Pap's ghost tells Juicy that while he was in jail, Rev, had him killed and he needs to avenge him. Juicy is already not a big fan of Rev who is vile and abusive, so he aims to plot the killing, and during the BBQ where family friends Rabby (Yvette Cason) and her adult children Opal (m) and Larry (Tian Richards) join, he organizes a charade activity where one of the guesses is something around "The reverend killed the cook", referencing the play within the play that Hamlet orchestrates to expose Claudius. There is also karaoke during the family gathering with a hilarious rendition of Crystal Waters - 100% Pure Love by Felicia Boswell, followed by an incredible interpretation of Radiohead's Creep by Ṣọla Fadiran which was absolute perfection and brought the house down.

Just like the play within a play, this production has the sound within the sound as the actors are miked of course but for the karaoke, they use a handheld, and for a minute, I felt I needed to cover my ears because the Globe theatre is technically small for that kind of decibels but, Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design pulled through flawlessly and turned the theatre into a concert venue that made audiences clap and sing along. Juicy is trying to embrace his queerness and with that, a series of confessions come through from the rest of the people at the gathering. Half of the characters do not die in Fat Ham as they do in Hamlet. The outcome here is a very colorful and musical one where the venue is semi-transformed once more into a dance floor/nightclubish scene where Tian Richards shines bright flaunting vogue moves along with Bradley King's lighting design that came alive being a stellar role in this production, beaming with purples and pinks that were animated and touched every corner of the house. King's lighting is one of the best I have seen this year, as it is beautiful creation that made for beautiful art. Sideeq Heard's direction brings all these elements together to flow as there is singing, monologues, silent moments, tension, and anger both onstage and for the audience which then is relieved with the comedy.

The cast of Fat Ham, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

Regarding the play itself, after the ghost's appearance, the following 40 minutes made me very uncomfortable and not in a good way. Except for the Juicy character who I considered to be flawless as well as Ṣọla Fadiran's performance that was articulate with clean diction, intentioned, and totally landed. Interpretations and acting aside, as I consider Felicia Boswell and Ethan Henry did the job, the mom and uncle characters were loud and obnoxious caricatures that although I think I get the intention Ijames wrote them with, it definitely did not sit with me. This dynamic reminded me of the movie Black Fiction and the play within the play in Alice Childress's Trouble in Mind, which poses the question behind the intention, who did James Ijames write this play for? himself? white people? Black people as a gag? or really, just because. Maybe all of the above? I am truly curious. 

After the uncomfortable, the remainder of the play brings many laughs, and Xavier Pacheco as Tio who is kind of Hamlet's Horatio, takes a lot of them. Pacheco is also great with wonderful timing, aware of the house, and very playful which alleviates some of the tension. The BBQ guests Rabby (Yvette Cason) and her adult children Opal (m) and Larry (Tian Richards) also bring comedic relief yet, their participation is brief. I would have liked to see more of them. m's Opal is darkly funny with an amazing voice that is modulated well. Yvette Cason is also very funny and manages good timing. Even though there is sort of a coming out, love confession with Larry, I too felt that to be brief and not fully baked. Tian Richards is redeemed histrionically at the end of the play, but not Larry.

The cast of Fat Ham, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

The production visually, is stunning. Maruti Evans's scenic design with wallpaper, layers, and depth made for the perfect setting that transforms at the end with an impressive reveal, and again, that lighting was delicious as was the sound. Dominique Fawn Hill's costume design is detailed and truly brings out each of the character's personalities which for Opal, I would have wanted to see the true personality after the confession that takes place. I noticed the shoe changing with Rabby from heels to flats and I considered that to be on point. I want Juicy's black overalls in my closet as well as Tedra's top.

Again, as much as I love not having an intermission, this play needs one for everybody's sake. To take it all in, breathe, marinate, and then go back in to take it home. The contrasting glamorous finale is a palate cleanser for the first part, however, the awkward experience did not get an exemption.

Go check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.

Fat Ham is currently playing until June 23. There will be post-show forums on Wednesday, June 12, and Wednesday, June 19 (evening performance). An open-caption performance will take place on Saturday, June 15 at 2:00 p.m.

For ticket prices and showtimes please click here. 

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