Perhaps the real tragedy of “Hamlet” is that it doesn’t end with a dance party; too many of his characters have died at the last curtain for anyone to shake a leg.
But if “Hamlet” wallows, “Fat Ham,” the hilarious but profound new piece inspired by James Ijames’ “Hamlet”, prefers to calm down. Built on the gnawed bones of its predecessor, and placed back in the modern South among the members of a black family that runs a barbecue restaurant, “Fat Ham” rejects tropes of black suffering even as it engages Shakespeare’s gravity. . It’s the rare take-off that actually takes off – then flies in its own intelligent direction.
Comedy, karaoke, and that disco finale are just part of the menu, though Morgan Green’s filmed production for the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, available on demand until May 23, leads with the laughs. Hamlet’s character Juicy (Brennen S. Malone) is a young man who takes human relations classes at a for-profit online college, who even his late father’s ghost, Pap (smiling Lindsay), pokes fun at. of a scam. “You go to school on a laptop!” he moans.
As in “Hamlet”, Pap returned to get revenge on his brother; in “Fat Ham” he is Rev (Smile Again), a supposed man of God whose main motives for fratricide seem to be getting his hands on money from Juicy University, Pap’s wife, Tedra ( Kimberly S. Fairbanks), and the family restaurant. If Shakespeare’s “funeral cooked meats” – the ones that “coldly garnish wedding tables” – have never looked very appetizing, here at the barbecue in the backyard after the quick wedding you can almost smell the pork shoulder. sizzle in the smoker.
The parallels of character and plot, while sharp, aren’t strict. Shakespeare’s Horatio has been reduced to his last three letters. Tio (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) is a stoner who, unlike the original, dreamed of some pretty weird philosophies, one of them involving a sexually adventurous VR gingerbread man.
Less adventurous, at least at first, are the characters of Ophelia and Laertes; here called Opal (Taysha Marie Canales) and Larry (Brandon J. Pierce), each silently struggling to live honestly in a rotten state. Their sententious relative is not Polonius but a clergyman who holds her handbag 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 not a random decoration, any more than “Hamlet” is simply a text of reference that a playwright appropriates. Ijames, having written forcefully in “Kill Move Paradise” about the tragedy of black men in a racist culture, here seeks to use the most violent plays to find a story that transcends violence. This does not mean that all violence is abjured. Revenge is, of course, courted, and someone dies, although most of the time by accident. There are punches and head shots. Juicy, Opal, and Larry all think about self-harm or hurting others.
But the chain of violence that characterizes “Hamlet” is deliberately cut in “Fat Ham”. The hardening of character that Shakespeare implicitly endorses in dragging Hamlet from futile introspection to the “nobler” action of murder is also rejected.
Instead, Ijames recommends thoughtfulness, passivity, and gentleness in the face of disdain and disappointment. Juicy is in this respect as unusual a hero as Hamlet, but less for what he could become than for what he already is. Asthmatic and “thicc”, he describes himself as bizarre, empathic and “fat sissy”; the black T-shirt he wears at the wedding banquet proudly proclaims him “Momma’s Boy”.
If he is therefore unsuitable in a world of over-armored men, he is also, in Malone’s beautiful and sassy performance, sexy and likable. Malone delivers Hamlet’s ‘what job is man’ speech almost verbatim but in such a conversational tone that you hear its ambivalence (“I don’t like the man: no, neither does the woman”) as if it was the first time. The rest of the cast play wonderfully with him, with Fairbanks’ Tedra swaying from dismay to worry before settling for acceptance, and Pierce’s Larry both drawn and terrified by the magnetism of his “sweetness.”
Green’s production, initially slated for the stage, is also sweet – in a good way. While this is almost a full-fledged movie, it still feels, like Wilma’s excellent recent production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” hand-made and fuzzy around the edges. What’s particularly important here is that it remains theatrical in its long-term construction (the entire piece is essentially a stage) and in the way it adapts the soliloquies from the original as a direct address to the camera. In those moments, with the actors watching as if to find us, the frame becomes a proscenium.
Looking 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 rotting from above. In “Fat Ham”, Ijames heads the other way. The broader social problem of violence against black men hardly needs to be discussed in this context; Juicy just assumes that stories like her family’s always have to end in death. “Because it’s a tragedy,” he says. “We are tragic.”
Rather, Ijames shows us how the big hand of society can shape the smaller drama of a family in crisis. And also how a black man – especially, a gay – can withstand the cycle of hereditary trauma even if it tempts him, whether in the form of a ghost or a literary lore. “Fat Ham” is therefore a tragedy hushed up in a comedy. When Tio returns from his meeting with the Gingerbread Man, he brings with him a message of joy, asking what life might be like “if you prefer pleasure over evil”.
On the evidence of “Fat Ham”, this life could be better for everyone; what begins as a man’s liberation can eventually become a liberation for all. Funerals can quickly be followed by celebrations. In that case, yes, let the dance party begin!
Until May 23; wilmatheater.org