Perhaps the real tragedy of “Hamlet” is that it doesn’t end with a dance party; Too many of his characters are dead on the last curtain for anyone to shake a leg.
But when Hamlet wallows, Fat Ham, the hilarious but profound new “Hamlet” -inspired piece by James Ijames, prefers to calm down. “Fat Ham” was built on the gnawed bones of its predecessor and set back in what is now the south among members of a black family who run a grill restaurant. He rejects the tropes of black suffering, although it affects the seriousness of Shakespeare. It’s the rare take-off that actually takes off – and then flies in its own intelligent direction.
Comedy, karaoke, and that disco finale are only part of the menu, though Morgan Green’s film production for the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, available on request until May 23, is leading the laughing outfit. Juicy (Burning S. Malone), the Hamlet character, is a young man who takes human relationships classes at an online nonprofit college that even the ghost of his late father, Pap (Lindsay Smiling), derided as a fraud. “You go to school with a laptop!” he moans.
As in “Hamlet”, Pap has returned to take revenge on his brother. In “Fat Ham” he is Rev (smiling again), a supposed man of God whose main motives for fratricide seem to be to give Juicy’s college money, Dad’s wife Tedra (Kimberly S. Fairbanks) and the restaurant into the hands of the family to get. If Shakespeare’s “funeral baked meat” – which “sets the wedding tables cold” – never sounded very appetizing here while grilling in the backyard after the quickie wedding, you can almost smell the pork shoulder sizzling in the smoker.
The parallels between character and plot are spicy, but not strict. Shakespeare’s Horatio was reduced to its last three letters. Tio (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) is a stoner who, unlike the original, has dreamed up some rather strange philosophies, one of which involves a sexually adventurous gingerbread man from virtual reality.
At least initially the characters Ophelia and Laertes are less adventurous; called here Opal (Taysha Marie Canales) and Larry (Brandon J. Pierce), everyone fights silently to live honestly in a lazy state. Her sententious parent is not Polonius, but a church-bag-hugging church lady named Rabby (Jennifer Kidwell); The only advice she has for her children is that Opal should wear a dress and that Larry should stay in the Navy despite his discomfort.
The fact that some of the characters are gay is not an accidental plot decoration, any more than “Hamlet” is just a touchstone for a playwright. Ijames, who wrote powerfully about the tragedy of black men in a racist culture in “Kill Move Paradise”, tries here to use the most violent pieces to find a story that goes beyond violence. That does not mean that all violence is renounced. Vengeance is, of course, courted, and someone dies, though mostly by accident. There are suction cups and head slams. Juicy, Opal, and Larry all consider harming themselves or causing harm to others.
But the chain of violence that is a trademark of “Hamlet” is intentionally severed in “Fat Ham”. Also rejected is the hardening of the character, which Shakespeare implicitly supports in order to pull Hamlet from the futile introspection to the “nobler” murder action.
Instead, Ijames recommends thoughtfulness, passivity, and meekness in the face of contempt and disappointment. Juicy is as unusual a hero as Hamlet in this regard, but less for what he might become than for what he already is. Asthmatic and “thicc” he calls himself strange on various occasions, an empath and “a big old sissy”; The black T-shirt he wears to the wedding banquet proudly proclaims him “Momma’s Boy”.
So if he’s an outsider in a world of over-armored men, he’s also sexy and personable in Malone’s gracious, unpushed performance. Malone delivers Hamlet’s speech “What kind of work is a man” almost literally, but in such a conversational tone that you hear his ambivalence (“Man doesn’t please me: no, neither does woman”) as if for the first time. The rest of the cast play him off wonderfully, Fairbanks’ Tedra swaying with dismay and concern before accepting acceptance, and Pierce’s Larry is both drawn and terrified by the magnetism of his “softness”.
Green’s production originally planned for the stage is also soft – in a good way. While it’s almost a full fledged movie, it still feels like Wilma’s excellent production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, handcrafted and fuzzy around the edges. What is particularly important here is that it remains theatrical in its long line construction (the whole piece is essentially a scene) and in the way in which it adapts the monologues of the original as a direct address to the camera. In those moments when the actors look out as if they wanted to find us, the setting becomes a proscenium.
Looking after us is what theater has always tried at its best. In Hamlet, Shakespeare used a family story to alert audiences to the danger of societies rotting from above. In “Fat Ham” Ijames goes the other way. The larger social problem of violence against black men hardly needs to be addressed in this context. Juicy simply assumes that stories like his family’s always have to end in death. “Because this is a tragedy,” he says. “We are tragic.”
Instead, Ijames shows us how the big hand of society can shape the smaller drama of a family in crisis. And also how a black – crucially, a gay – can withstand the cycle of inherited trauma, even when tempted, be it in the form of a ghost or a literary tradition. So “Fat Ham” is a tragedy that was choked into a comedy. When Tio returns from meeting the gingerbread man, he brings a message of joy and asks what life could be like “if you prefer pleasure to harm”.
After the evidence from Fat Ham, life could be better for everyone. What begins as a person’s liberation can eventually become liberation for everyone. Funerals can be achieved quickly by celebrating. In that case, yes, let the dance party begin!
Until May 23; wilmatheater.org