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Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘Fat Ham’ takes ‘Hamlet’ in unexpected directions: NPR


Chris Herbie Holland (L.) as Tio and Marcel Spears as Juicy in Fatty ham at the Public Theater in New York.

Joan Marcus/Public Theater


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Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘Fat Ham’ takes ‘Hamlet’ in unexpected directions: NPR

Chris Herbie Holland (L.) as Tio and Marcel Spears as Juicy in Fatty ham at the Public Theater in New York.

Joan Marcus/Public Theater

The character of Juicy is portrayed in the new play Fatty ham like “a kind of Hamlet” – his father is dead and a ghost, his uncle killed him, and this uncle is now married to his mother.

This ghost dad, however, struts around the stage in a shimmering white suit, smoke billowing from his shoulders. The uncle, played by the same actor, Billy Eugene Jones, is a pig farmer and barbeque master, casually cruel. And Juicy, while lonely, sad, and intelligent like Hamlet, is also sensitive and (mostly) kind. And gay.

“Juicy is sweet,” says Marcel Spears, who performs it every night on stage at the Public Theater in New York. “And so he has this sweetness to him. He has this kind of innocence to him.”

But like Hamlet, Juicy doesn’t know if he should do what his father asks of him: kill his uncle. He’s never killed anyone before, he tells his cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland).

“Yeah,” Tio replies, empathically. “I think it would be very hard.”

And that’s where this play really starts to diverge from Shakespeare’s. Hamlet. Because it’s not really about revenge. Instead, it’s about how the characters shirk the expectations of their families — families they love dearly — to become themselves.

“Juicy is really, really brave and really brave,” Spears said. “He’s growing up in a family that doesn’t fully accept who he is. But even though he’s not sure what his next step is, his ability to stand firm in the choices he IS capable of making is really cool and really inspiring.”

“Standing firm in your choices” is not how one would describe the character of Hamlet.

Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘Fat Ham’ takes ‘Hamlet’ in unexpected directions: NPR

The cast of Fatty ham gathered around the dinner table.

Joan Marcus / The Public Theater


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toggle caption

Joan Marcus / The Public Theater

Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘Fat Ham’ takes ‘Hamlet’ in unexpected directions: NPR

The cast of Fatty ham gathered around the dinner table.

Joan Marcus / The Public Theater

A Pulitzer winner

Fatty ham won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year while the live-action production was in dress rehearsal.

“Recognition – it was hard to describe what it feels like,” says playwright James Ijames. When he heard the news, he was in his office at Villanova University, where he is a professor. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t feel my fingers anymore.’ I got a little nauseous and had to sit down.”

And then his phone started ringing. And ring. And he thought, “Oh, these people are genuinely happy for me. And that was so sweet.”

The play was first seen in cinemas; it was to premiere at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia with a different cast when COVID made that impossible. So, in February 2021, they decided to shoot it on location in northern Virginia (it was warmer than Philadelphia), making a video that was still very playful, filmed in a single take. Critics were delighted.

So did the Pulitzer Prize committee in its citation, saying that Fatty ham is “a funny and poignant piece that cleverly transposes ‘Hamlet’ to a family barbecue in the American South to address issues of identity, kinship, responsibility and honesty.”

And yes, that’s it. But the production is also surprising, in many ways. There’s karaoke and balloons. It’s funny. And even… triumphant.

“What galvanizes the whole play is Juicy’s ability to literally change the world he finds himself in and make a different choice,” says director Saheem Ali, a frequent collaborator with Ijames. “At the end of the play, he and the actors change their reality.”

In other words, they come out of the roles they play. They walk out of the game. Ali says: “And obviously that’s a metaphorical thing to do, but it’s inspiring for me as someone navigating the world to realize that we have the power and the ability to make a choice. different.”

Fatty ham plays at the Public Theater in New York until July 31.

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