Perhaps the real tragedy of “Hamlet” is that it doesn’t end with a dance party; too many of its characters lie dead at the final curtain for anyone to shake a leg.
But if “Hamlet” wallows, “Fat Ham,” the hilarious yet profound new “Hamlet”-inspired play by James Ijames, prefers to mellow. Built on the gnawed bones of its predecessor, and reset in the modern-day South among members of a Black family that runs a barbecue restaurant, “Fat Ham” refuses the tropes of Black suffering even as it engages the seriousness of the Shakespeare. It is the rare takeoff that actually takes off — and then flies in its own smart direction.
Comedy, karaoke and that disco finale are only part of the menu, though Morgan Green’s filmed production for the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, available on demand through May 23, leads with the laughs. Juicy (Brennen S. Malone), the Hamlet character, is a young man taking classes in human relations at a for-profit online college, which even the ghost of his late father, Pap (Lindsay Smiling), derides as a scam. “You going to school on a laptop!” he moans.
As in “Hamlet,” Pap has returned to seek revenge on his brother; in “Fat Ham,” he’s Rev (Smiling again), a supposed man of God whose main motives for fratricide seem to be getting his hands on Juicy’s college money, Pap’s wife, Tedra (Kimberly S. Fairbanks), and the family’s restaurant. If Shakespeare’s “funeral baked meats” — the ones that “coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” — never sounded very appetizing, here, at the backyard barbecue following the quickie wedding, you can almost smell the pork shoulder sizzling in the smoker.
The parallels of character and plot, though piquant, aren’t strict. Shakespeare’s Horatio has been reduced to just his last three letters. Tio (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) is a stoner who, unlike the original, has dreamt some pretty strange philosophies, one of them involving a sexually adventurous virtual-reality gingerbread man.
Less adventurous, at least at first, are the Ophelia and Laertes characters; here called Opal (Taysha Marie Canales) and Larry (Brandon J. Pierce), each struggles silently to live honestly in a rotten state. Their sententious parent is not Polonius but a purse-clutching church lady named Rabby (Jennifer Kidwell); the only advice she has for her children is that Opal should put on a dress and that Larry, despite his discomfort, should stay in the Navy.
That several of the characters are gay is no random plot decoration, any more than “Hamlet” is merely a touchstone text for a playwright to appropriate. Ijames, having written powerfully in “Kill Move Paradise” about the tragedy of Black men in a racist culture, here seeks to use the most violent of plays to find a story that reaches beyond violence. Which is not to say all violence is abjured. Revenge is, of course, courted, and someone does die, though mostly by accident. There are sucker punches and head slams. Juicy, Opal and Larry all think about self-harm or doing harm to others.
But the chain of violence that is a hallmark of “Hamlet” is deliberately severed in “Fat Ham.” Also rejected is the hardening of character that Shakespeare implicitly endorses in dragging Hamlet from vain introspection to the “nobler” action of murder.
Instead, Ijames recommends thoughtfulness, passivity and gentleness in the face of disdain and disappointment. Juicy is in that regard as unusual a hero as Hamlet was, but less for what he might become than for what he already is. Asthmatic and “thicc,” he variously calls himself weird, an empath and “a big ole sissy”; the black T-shirt he wears to the wedding banquet proudly proclaims him a “Momma’s Boy.”
If he is thus a misfit in a world of over-armored men, he is also, in Malone’s lovely, unpushy performance, sexy and sympathetic. Malone delivers Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man” speech nearly verbatim but in such a conversational tone that you hear its ambivalence (“Man delights not me: no, nor woman neither”) as if for the first time. The rest of the cast plays off him beautifully, Fairbanks’s Tedra teetering from dismay to concern before settling on acceptance, and Pierce’s Larry both drawn to and terrified by the magnetism of his “softness.”
Green’s production, originally planned for the stage, is soft too — in a good way. Though it is nearly a full-fledged movie, it still feels, like the Wilma’s excellent recent production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” handmade and fuzzy at the edges. Especially important here is that it remains theatrical in its long-line construction (the whole play is essentially one scene) and in the way it adapts the original’s soliloquies as direct address to the camera. In those moments, with the actors peering out as if to find us, the frame becomes a proscenium.
Peering out to find us is what theater at its best has always sought to do. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare used a family story to alert his audience to the danger of societies that rot from the top. In “Fat Ham,” Ijames heads in the other direction. The larger social problem of violence against Black men need hardly be spoken in this context; Juicy just assumes that stories like his family’s must always end in death. “Cause this a tragedy,” he says. “We tragic.”
Ijames instead shows us how the big hand of society can shape the smaller drama of a family in crisis. And also how a Black man — crucially, a gay one — may resist the cycle of inherited trauma even as it tempts him, whether in the form of a ghost or a literary tradition. “Fat Ham” is thus a tragedy smothered in a comedy. When Tio returns from his encounter with the gingerbread man, he brings with him a message of joy, asking what life might be like “if you chose pleasure over harm.”
On the evidence of “Fat Ham,” that life might be better for everyone; what begins as one man’s liberation may eventually become a liberation for all. Funerals may be quickly succeeded by celebrations. In which case, yes, let the dance party begin!
Through May 23; wilmatheater.org