Playwright James Ijames actually really loves Hamlet. But he also wants to mess with it.
“I have this need to disrupt the canon as much as I can, and to disrupt people’s deification and lionization of classical texts—as if they’re frozen in amber and all we can do is put a treatment on top of that, like wallpaper, by setting it in the ’20s,” says Ijames.
We’ve all seen that surface treatment of Shakespeare: the wild west Taming of the Shrew, the prep school Julius Caesar. What Ijames does with Hamlet is different. It’s deeper. It gets down to the bones. In his 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fat Ham, the playwright introduces audiences to Juicy, a 20-something queer Black man, at a backyard barbeque where the guy manning the smoker is his murderous uncle newly married to his mother. Following an extended, sold-out run at The Public Theater, Fat Ham is now on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre, where it opens April 12. Marcel Spears, from the CBS sitcom The Neighborhood (now in its fifth season), makes his Broadway debut as Juicy.
Ijames’ takes on Hamlet entirely from a place of love. “He’s a fascinating character, endlessly plumbable,” he says. “Like, you can’t get to the bottom of that guy.” But when Ijames says “disrupt,” there is no negative connotation. It’s more personal. “There's this real desire in me to take the parts of the classics and bring them closer to me in the way that the people look, in the way that people speak.”
There are other parallels in Fat Ham to Hamlet, though all shifted closer to home: the ghost of his father, who was stabbed in prison; a best friend named Tio (as in Horatio) who smokes weed and philosophizes; pressures to date Opal (or Ophelia), a gay woman struggling with her own societal and family pressures; and a complicated relationship with Opal's brother and Juicy's childhood friend Larry (Laertes). In Ijames’ hands, this piece of the classical canon shoots off into an entirely new direction, exploring family trauma and how queerness is treated in the Black community. And he attacks the tragedy with humor.
“I sort of take what I want from Hamlet and throw the stuff that I don't really want to the side,” says Ijames. “And then it becomes a play that's about different modalities of masculinity. It's a play about love. It's a play about ending cycles of violence and trauma in your family. It's about choosing a different path, a path that prioritizes pleasure over pain.”
Throughout the play, Juicy breaks the fourth wall, commenting on the action of the play and its characters. He occasionally soliloquizes. Like Hamlet, Juicy mulls the idea of killing his uncle. He tries to capture the conscience of his uncle in a game of charades. He casually quotes Shakespeare verbatim, sometimes to rolling-eye responses from his family and sometimes as little inside jokes for a Bard-loving audience. But among those Shakespeare lines, audiences won’t hear “to be or not to be.” Juicy isn’t here to contemplate life and death. That’s not question.
For Spears, the play is less about what Juicy does, and more about who he becomes. “Juicy starts in a cycle of existing in the path of least resistance. He wants more, but he also doesn't want to push for more. He's doing little half measures. Like he's going to online school instead of moving out of his house completely. But his environment is so chaotic and noisy” says Spears. “He’s at a fork in the road where he could go anywhere, and he doesn't know where to go.”
Several characters around him—primarily his uncle and his father’s ghost—mark Juicy as “soft.” He is a mama's boy. He dresses and speaks differently. He’s unapologetically queer. Here, softness can be a masculine trait. “I want people to recognize that it’s not a binary,” says Ijames. “I want to have a conversation about all the ways in which a person can move through the world, as masculine-identifying. And softness is absolutely one of those things. When you hold a baby, when you are tender with your spouse, when you are making something you love, crafting a thing—that’s softness, and men experience it all the time.”
Though soft, there is a boldness to Juicy. As he begins to learn more about himself, he’s able to accept who he is and disregard the labels that others try to stick to him. “He can say, ‘Yeah, I’m soft. Who cares?’ But also be like, ‘I don’t like the way that you define this for me,’’ says Spears. “He’s more interested in just the freedom of being.” His Hamlet, his Juicy, is not stuck in consideration. He's actively being.
Some people may recoil at the idea of modernizing Hamlet, but Ijames points out that Hamlet is an ancient story that’s been revamped many times. “At its core, it’s a Cain and Abel story, a brother kills a brother, and then the fallout of that. It’s a really old story. You go into any culture and you find that story,” he says.
Fat Ham is that story for this time, for this culture. But it is the lenses of queerness and Blackness that allow Fat Ham to (slight spoiler here) turn away from tragedy. Juicy and his family are able to shuffle off a violent end, replacing it with unabashed joy, a characteristic Ijames learned in the Black churches of the South. “[Their] weapon in the world is joy. The technology of the Black church is resistance through joy,” says Ijames.
Spears, who like Ijames, grew up in a southern Christian church, agrees. “Another realm opens up in this because the joy and the byproduct of freedom are so strong. And it’s so necessary and so immediate, that everybody’s just like, “We are doing this now. We were doing this Hamlet thing. But it’s this now. It’s joy now.”
"It's more pleasurable to write something that is striving for joy," say Ijames, "than writing something that is moving towards disaster or catastrophe."
The playwright says that there are other classic texts he would like to do adaptations of. "They didn't have the internet. Celebrity doesn't exist. Terrorism doesn't exist in the way that we know it," he says. For him, these classic plays get to their themes a little more clearly. He can look at, for example, fear and pride, unclouded by aspects of modernity. He can examine them, and then put on the layers of his world. In Fat Ham, an old story of a father's disappointment can be retuned so that a young man's softness is masculine and his queerness is a point of pride.
“Plays are supposed to hold up a mirror to society. And through that reflection create empathy, bring people together, bring people to a closer understanding, start a very difficult conversation, start arguments, start relationships. It's supposed to do all of those things,” says Spears. “And I think this play does that in a really beautiful way.”
See photos from Fat Ham on Broadway below.