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Theater Review: Fat Ham

L-R: Marcel Spears and Billy Eugene Jones in Fat Ham at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Sideeq Heard. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

“This above all: to thine own self be true.” James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize winning comedy Fat Ham is a modern retelling of the ultimate Shakespearian tragedy. Hamlet has influenced its fair share of adaptations, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) to The Lion King (1994), but what might our favorite Danish King have in common with a young, queer, Black man who can barely afford tuition payments at the University of Phoenix online? Everything, apparently. 

Ijames’ bold new comedy builds on themes of cyclical violence and performance to depict a profound and modern narrative meditation on race, class, queerness, and generational trauma. And though Fat Ham provides deep-cutting insights on identity and Shakespeare, it never approaches overly intellectualized tedium, in fact the opposite. Regardless of Shakespearian literacy, Fat Ham is a play for everyone–boisterously funny and poignantly affecting throughout, a truly theatrical experience in every sense.

L-R: Nikki Crawford and Marcel Spears in Fat Ham at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Sideeq Heard. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

Set in the American South, Fat Ham follows Juicy, a young, queer, Black man, over the course of a backyard barbecue celebrating the recent wedding of his mother, Tedra, to his uncle, the dangerously deceptive Rev. When Juicy is visited by the ghost of his recently deceased father, he is left with a question of Shakespearian proportions–to kill his uncle or not to kill his uncle. Directed by Sideeq Heard, The West Coast premiere of Fat Ham is full of spectacle and celebration, running 100 minutes without intermission. 

Across the board, the cast is phenomenal, seamlessly blending comedy and tragedy, realism with a kind of larger-than-life performative affect that would command the Globe Theatre. Nikki Crawford is stunning as Tedra, Juicy’s mother. Comedic and charismatic, she is a woman who must always be “on,” to keep her husband happy, to keep her son safe, and to keep herself from dwelling too deeply on her age and profound isolation. Billy Eugene Jones (doubling as Rev, Juicy’s uncle, and Pap, Juicy’s ghostly father), is the show’s antagonist, expertly towing the line between disarming and dangerous– a family guy through and through before suddenly dropping the temperature of the room to challenge the “soft” Juicy. 

L-R: Marcel Spears, Nikki Crawford and Billy Eugene Jones in Fat Ham at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Sideeq Heard. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

The cast is generally split along a generational divide, which is emphasized in a high-stakes game of charades that begins to publicly reveal Juicy’s mistrust of Rev (this taking the place of the play-within-a-play from Shakespeare’s original). Juicy, Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), and Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb) are all navigating the complex intersection of their young, queer, Black identities, exploring when, and with whom, it is safe to express themselves amidst a backdrop of assumed parental intolerance, particularly exacerbated by Rev’s openly expressed homophobia towards Juicy. Ijames’ expands and sharpens Hamlet’s themes of appearance and deception, and Fat Ham is keenly interested in the performance of gender and sexuality. 

L-R: Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Marcel Spears, Matthew Elijah Webb and Adrianna Mitchell in Fat Ham at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Sideeq Heard. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

While the main action of Fat Ham is rooted in realism, the comedy juxtaposes a myriad of theatrical traditions with contained vignettes of stylistic breakaways that underscore the show’s thematic or emotional heights. From musical numbers to tragic Shakespearian soliloquy to drag performance, these moments of intense emotion and spectacle are some of the most affecting in the show. The audience is invited into Juicy’s inner turmoil, a transition deftly facilitated by the magnificent Marcel Spears, who transforms from the disenfranchised and disheartened real-world loner to the authentic Juicy, complete with the star-power of a rock idol and the gravitas of a Danish King.

The overall design of the show mirrors this theme of performance, juxtaposing the real with the theatrical. Maruti Evans’ bold set design hinges on a real photograph of a house, overlaid across the entire stage, with specific interactive elements (the sliding back door, window, and porch) built out. Bright green turf sprawls across the floor and towards the audience, a reminder that what appears to be real is frequently another thing entirely, plus a big reveal that you’ll have to wait to see for yourself. With costume design by Dominique Fawn Hill and illusions by Skylar Fox, this back-porch family dramedy is a surprisingly technically impressive feat. 

L-R: Billy Eugene Jones, Nikki Crwaford, Benja Kay Thomas, Marcel Spears, Adrianna Mitchell and Matthew Elijah Webb in Fat Ham at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Sideeq Heard. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

Fat Ham is a truly exciting theater-going experience. The magic of the piece lies in its ability to marry the tragic with comedy. You will be laughing throughout, and by curtain, you will probably also have learned something about Shakespeare, identity, and people. If you still aren’t hooked, I will leave you with this quote overheard from the elderly couple sitting in front of me: “It was wacky, it was wonderful, I enjoyed the hell out of it.”

Fat Ham runs through May 5th at The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90024. Shows are at 8:00 pm shows Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, as well as Saturdays 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.

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Sika Lonner
Sika Lonner
Sika Lonner is a Los Angeles based actress and writer. Her training includes Loyola Marymount University (B.A.), Academy of Dramatic Art - University of Zagreb, and Michael Tschechow Studio Berlin.

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