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Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'Fat Ham' takes 'Hamlet' in unexpected directions

Chris Herbie Holland (L.) as Tio and Marcel Spears as Juicy in <em>Fat Ham</em> at New York's Public Theater.
Joan Marcus
Public Theater
Chris Herbie Holland (L.) as Tio and Marcel Spears as Juicy in Fat Ham at New York's Public Theater.

The character of Juicy is described in the new play Fat Ham as "a kind of Hamlet" - his father is dead and a ghost, his uncle has killed him, and that uncle is now married to his mother.

This ghost-father, though, struts onstage in a sparkly white suit, smoke wafting from his shoulders. The uncle, played by the same actor, Billy Eugene Jones, is a pig farmer and barbecue pit master, casually cruel. And Juicy, though lonely and sad and smart like Hamlet, is also sensitive and (mostly) kind. And gay.

"Juicy is soft," says Marcel Spears, who plays him onstage each night at New York's Public Theater. "And so he has this sweetness to him. He has this sort of innocence to him."

But like Hamlet, Juicy can't figure out if he should do as his father asks: kill his uncle. He's never killed anyone before, he tells his cousin Tio (Chris Herbie Holland).

"Yeah," Tio responds, with empathy. "I think it would be mad hard."

And that's when this play really starts diverging from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Because it's not really about revenge. Instead, it's about how characters wriggle themselves out from under the expectations of their families - families they love very much - to become their true selves.

"Juicy is really, really brave and really courageous," Spears says. "He grows up in a family that doesn't fully accept who he is. But even as he is uncertain about what his next step is, his ability to stand firm in the choices he IS able to make is really cool and really inspiring."

"Standing firm in his choices" is not how anyone would describe the character of Hamlet.

The cast of <em>Fat Ham</em> gathered around the dinner table.
Joan Marcus / The Public Theater
The Public Theater
The cast of Fat Ham gathered around the dinner table.

A Pulitzer winner

Fat Ham won the Pulitzer Prize in drama this year while the production at the Public was in dress rehearsals.

"The 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's a professor. "I kept saying, 'I can't feel my fingers.' I got a little nauseous and had to sit down."

And then his phone started ringing. And ringing. And he thought, "Oh, these people genuinely are happy for me. And that was really lovely."

The play was first seen on film; it had been set to premiere at Philadelphia's Wilma Theater 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 play-like, filmed in one take. Critics were ecstatic.

So was the Pulitzer award committee in its citation, saying that Fat Ham is "a funny, poignant play that deftly transposes 'Hamlet' to a family barbecue in the American South to grapple with questions of identity, kinship, responsibility, and honesty."

And yes, it is that. But the production is also surprising, in a multitude of ways. There's karaoke and balloons. It's funny. And even...triumphant.

"The thing that galvanizes the whole play is Juicy's ability to literally shift the world he's in and make a different choice," says director Saheem Ali, a frequent collaborator of Ijames'. "At the end of the play, he and the cast shift their reality."

In other words, they step out of the roles they are playing. They step out of the play. Ali says, "And obviously, that's a metaphorical thing to do, but it's inspiring for me as a person navigating the world to realize that we do have the power and the ability to make a different choice."

Fat Ham is playing at the Public Theater in New York City through July 31.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.