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5/18/2024      FAT HAM                                      Alliance Theatre


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Imagine, if you will, a backyard barbecue at the Carolina House of a (now deceased) Restaurant Owner and Cook.  Pap, jailed for the murder of a man (“His breath stank like his brain died and dripped onto his tongue”), has himself been “shanked” in jail.  A week after Pap’s death, his widow, Tedra, is marrying her former brother-in-law, Rev.  Pap and Tedra’s son, Juicy, is (not surprisingly), not in a celebratory mood.


Sound familiar?


Yes, this 2022 Pulitzer Prize winner by the talented James Ijames hangs like a shroud on the ribs of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“That’s the good rub”), condensing Shakespeare’s plot into a single afternoon and applying its tropes and dreamt-of -philosophies to the black queer (overweight) experience, and, against all odds, giving it a happy ending.  Here, the rest is not silence, but buoyant celebration fueled by the incredible lightness of self-awareness and confession! 


So, we start out with Juicy and his best friend Tio, talking about porn and Pap and the too-fast wedding of Rev and Tedra.  It turns out, Juicy feels little grief – Pap was mean as a snake, cruel  and scornful of his “soft” son.  Into their banter comes Pap’s ghost, just as creepy as ever, but ineffective in his current non-corporeal state.  Still, he insists Juicy avenge his murder, claiming that Rev ordered the “hit” on him. 

Can the ghost be believed, or is Juicy being led “down the garden path” by more sinister forces intent on urging him to follow in the violent footsteps of his father and grandfather and great-grandfather and all his sires back to (and including) his enslaved forebears?


Eventually we meet family friends Rabby, Opal, and Larry.  Larry is a spit-and-polish military hero, his dress-uniformed appearance a stark contrast to Juicy’s more casual goth-y mourning clothes.  Larry may have a “soft” edge of his own and resists his attraction to Juicy.  Opal is chafing under a dress her mother insists she wears – she’d rather wear her sweats and dungarees, more in line with her ambitions to be a marine, or at least a shooting range proprietor.  And Rabby, who has secrets of her own, just wants to praise the Lord, and steer her children away from their “real selves.”


Yes, we know the plot, we know the characters, and still this play continually surprises.  Filled with raucous humor and slang-ridden dialog, it also often breaks into trenchant observations and deep musings that would not be out-of-place in any production of Hamlet itself.  Juicy even has many moments of soliloquy, when he steps out of the scene and addresses us directly, sometimes using Shakespeare’s own words (“The Conscience of the King” monologue and “What a Piece of Work” is man, for example).  There is an energetic Karaoke sequence, in which Tedra writhes on the picnic table like a stripper, and Juicy isolates himself to sing of being a “Creep” and a “Weirdo.”  There are numerous digressions and monologues that underscore the “separateness” of all the characters, as they struggle to come to an honest assessment of their own happiness and nature.  There is a mid-play haunting with the ghost of Pap coming straight out of the smoker to remind Juicy of his “duty” to avenge.  And there’s a final sequence that threatens to erupt in violence against the entire cast until common sense takes root and overwhelms the dictates of fate and Shakespeare and bloodlines and the perfect Barbecue sauce (“It’s the rub!”)


This play appealed to everything I love about Shakespeare and Theatre – its colloquial and idiomatic language is every bit as poetic as Shakespeare’s early English, its characters resonate on their own even without what we know about their Danish counterparts, and its “happy ending” is earned and natural and extraordinarily satisfying.


This cast transferred in whole from the 2023 Boston production, though Marshall Mabry III (Juicy) did start his career with the Alliance Teen Ensemble and Palefsky Collision Project.  (At least all the Understudies are Atlanta actors.)  It was obvious these actors know and like each other and have worked together for a long time – the ensemble work here is textbook perfect.   Still, this is Mabry’s show and they excel – they create a character who is recognizably Hamlet but is a creation original and profound – they use what has always been called their “weakness” (being “soft”) and transforms it into their greatest strength, the weapon that will finally break the cycles of generational violence and vengeance that has been their family’s defining history (and perhaps many black families’ defining histories).  It doesn’t hurt that they also handle the Shakespearean excerpts like a pro.


As Tedra Ebony Marshall-Oliver is much more sympathetic than Shakespeare’s Gertrude – she bridles against being alone, against growing older, and believes (honestly) that she deserves the happy ending that Rev is offering, the antidote to the years of cruelty and abuse she endured married to Pap.  James T. Alfred plays both Pap and Rev, keeping them distinct but highlighting how they are alike, each prone to cruelty, each (slightly) open to family.


Lau’Rie Roach is the comic highlight as Tio, a rambunctious stoner prone to “deep thoughts” and dreams, open to Juicy’s “softness” but never threatened by it.  As Larry, David J. Castillo starts as a ramrod-stiff soldier, taciturn and dutiful.  When he “cuts loose” as his “real self,” it is a joy to behold.  Victoria Omoregie is also wonderful as Opal, confident in her masculinity, easy with her friends, bristling at her mother’s control.  And as Rabby, Thomika Marie Bridwell is prim and God-Fearing, controlling her children with an iron hand.  Of all the characters she has the least in common with her antecedent (Polonius) and the most to gain by that thinner connection.


This is also a very tight technical ensemble – Set Designer Luciana Stecconi has given us a backyard that feels lived in, including a smoker that seems practical until Pap’s ghost rises out of it.  I loved the little touches – the screen door off its hinges, the cheap and broken-down lawn furniture, the barely visible kitchen on the other side of the missing screen door.   Lights by Xiangfu Xiao keep the “live” action afternoon-bright but gives the soliloquys a stunning look and the Karaoke sequence a disco splendor – perhaps unrealistic for a sunny afternoon but fitting the moment and the mood perfectly.  Celeste Jennings’ costumes are character-and-moment perfect, especially the dress that Opal would rather burn than wear, Tedra’s too-tight ensembles highlighting her still-sexy-after-all-this-time attitude, and the contrast between Larry’s starched uniform and his final let-it-all-hang out marvelosity.


Dawn M. Simmons has transferred Stevie Walker-Webb’s original direction to the Hertz Stage (in traditional proscenium set-up) and kept her acting and technical ensembles in close synchrony, keeping the pace quick and sprightly and finding the right moments for quiet contemplation.


Fat Ham is a vibrant piece of work, highlighting why Shakespeare’s tropes and characters are perfect for any generation or demographic or situation, and the Alliance has mounted a vigorous and compellingly entertainment production.  It is, its own self, truer than true.   Now, about that rub ….



     -- Brad Rudy (   #AllianceTheatre   #HertzStage   #FatHam)

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