Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Fat Ham drops us into a southern family by way of Stratford (on-Avon)

Hamlet is a beautiful, long, and well-loved Shakespearian play set in the cold regal world of medieval Denmark. It’s spiritual cousin, Fat Ham, is quick moving, funny and touching play set in the middle class Black south. The parallels between the two are both subtle and obvious. Luckily for the audience, the differences abound with humor and current day problems.

For those of us that barely remember the plot of Hamlet, fear not. Fat Ham is easy to follow, basks in the sunlight keeping the best of the story but you do not need any knowledge of Hamlet to enjoy this. Like Hamlet, our hero Juicy (Marcel Spears) is thwarted and emasculated by his uncle, who quickly marries Juicy's mother after his father’s death. His mother (Nikki Crawford, now with a well earned Tony nomination) also makes the choice to marry his uncle, now stepfather. But in Fat Ham her reasons are clear and self-aware. Juicy's stepfather Rev (an overwhelming Billy Eugene Jones) is Rev, a preacher and a masculine bully that sees Juicy as a soft momma’s boy. A person he should shape into a “real” man, not a unique individual.

Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Calvin Leon Smith, Benja Kay Thomas, Adriana Mitchell and Marcel Spears

Juicy’s obvious gayness is just another reason for the Rev to torment him. A friction made worse by his mother’s desire to appease her new husband, often at the expense of her son.

Doesn’t sound like a comedy, but Fat Ham is definitely that. His best friend Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) is a go with the flow young man, who doesn’t understand Juicy’s reluctance to conform. Although Tio does admire Juicy for his strength. Tio floats along through life on a cloud of video games, pot, and a unchallenged life but is still preferred by Rev to Juicy.

Juicy’s emotional relief comes from his cousins Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith). Opal is an obvious lesbian, yet it goes unremarked by the family. A denial maintained to paper over the family’s condemnation. Larry is a Marine on leave, coming to his aunt’s house to enjoy the bar-be-que and family. Opal works hard to be the support and outlet Juicy needs. Larry arrives a different man from the Marines. A role model of the family who carries doubts he doesn’t express.

Unlike Hamlet, there are no physical deaths in Fat Ham, but emotional rebirths instead. Juicy doesn’t descend into the depths of despair, but into the confusion and frustration of a child left out of a new family.

Marcel Spears brings to Juicy a multitude of emotions including joy, love, and anger. His mother has chosen her life and strives hard to keep Juicy in it. But Juicy won’t conform to meet the expectations of the new family. He will not be quiet and accepting. Even when he tries to accommodate his family to this new situation, he is belittled and bullied by the Rev, his stepfather.

Juicy uses humor to armor himself, even though it is not enough. Ultimately Juicy chooses not to remake himself into the Rev’s idea of manhood. He makes his own path, albeit in fits and starts. His definition of masculinity is based on honesty and self-acceptance. This determination gives this power to his cousin’s Opal and Larry. 

Fat Ham is funny and life affirming in a way Hamlet never was. Watch it.

Nikki Crawford, Marcel Spears, Billy Eugene Jones

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