It's funny, it's queer, and it's Shakespeare. James Ijames Pulitzer-winning Fat Ham has made the transfer from Off-Broadway's The Public Theater to Broadway's American Airlines with previews having started March 21. The cast and creative team behind Fat Ham, gathered to tease their new play to the press. Playwright Ijames explained how Fat Ham began with a student production that Ijames did in college. "I fell in love with the story [of Hamlet], with the characters. And then not too long ago, I started reading the play over and over again. I was like, 'I think I want to do something with this,'" he told Playbill during the show's press day. "I picked the parts that I thought were interesting and could build a story out of it. Then I just wrote my version of it."
Fat Ham will open on Broadway April 12.
From its college beginnings, Ijames took Shakespeare to the American South. Reinventing the classic tragedy Hamlet, Fat Ham is set at a Black family's backyard cookout. Juicy, a queer college kid is grappling with identity questions and the ghost of his father—who is demanding vengeance for murder. Larry is a closeted queer man who has returned home from the Marines. And Opal is a queer 19-year-old who hates being forced into a dress. Of course, there's a feast and family—and secrets will come out. Find out from the show's team why the show is actually a party, and why you should see it, in the video above.
Fat Ham asks the question: How do we break cycles of trauma and violence? But it's done with a lot of love—and flair. As the show's leading actor Marcel Spears put it, "We're bringing you Black joy, Black love, Black trauma, and Black liberation, all in one nice hour and a half." He goes on, "The characters say and do things that we don't often get to say and do in our everyday lives. It's a play that's very funny—until it's not. Then it's very sad until it's not. In a play where you would expect things to go horribly, horribly wrong, this play gets it right. It sort of breaks itself open into something bigger than itself."
When it was first announced for Broadway, cast member Benja Kay Thomas (who plays Rabby) tells Playbill that she thought, "It's about time. That's what I thought because the crowds kept coming." The Public Theater and National Black Theatre co-production has transferred with the Off-Broadway cast reprising their roles for the Broadway bow.
It's a move that surprised Billy Eugene Jones, who plays Rev and Pap. "There's so many times where you're doing plays and they replace you with people of more note. And this time, they kept us all together. It warms my heart," he shared. Jones' performance made such an impact Off-Broadway that it got him an Obie Award.
Five members of the cast are making their Broadway debuts in the show, and the fact that they're doing so in Fat Ham is especially significant. Calvin Leon Smith, who plays Larry, explained, "I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. I'm a little, queer, Black boy, just like Larry. As a Black queer man, it's rare to even be able to play queer characters. It's not lost on me how important this moment is for me and for other people who are watching the show."
It's a sentiment also echoed by Adrianna Mitchell, who plays Opal, who told Playbill, "I always really loved playing very masculine energy characters. I think it's really important to see female characters take up space like that...I enjoy that energy because I feel like it allows me to expand. I find some space in myself playing her."
Nikki Crawford, who is playing Tedra (Juicy's mother), shared the hopes she had for the audience coming to see the show: "I hope that whatever biases they come into the theatre with, about a particular group of people—whether that be gay, queer people or Black people or Asian—that you leave the theatre transformed, and see that we're all alike. We have more similarities and differences."
Crawford's hopes are part of Chris Herbie Holland's, as well. But Holland thinks that the audience will especially find Fat Ham's portrayal of a flawed, loving family relatable. "The way that we bicker and fight and claw each other...the way that we forgive," he explained. "I think that family aspect is what people attach themselves to. Because everybody would hope that they could go home at the end of the day to the cookout with family and forgive; that they could have these tough conversations and learn how to love on each other a little bit more."
Below, find out what the Fat Ham team would bring to the BBQ.
Joining the Broadway cast as understudies are RJ Foster, Marquis D. Gibson, Alexandria Lewis, Matthew Elijah Webb, and Rema Webb. Saheem Ali, who directed the Off-Broadway production, also directs the Broadway staging, marking his Main Stem debut. The creative team features the return of scenic designer Maruti Evans, costume designer Dominique Fawn Hill, sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman, choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, hair and wig designer Earon Chew Nealey, and illusions designer Skylar Fox. They are joined by lighting designer Bradley King, fight director Lisa Kopitsky, and singing coach Deborah Lapidus. Casting is by Kate Murray.
Fat Ham is produced on Broadway by the recently announced Cynthia Erivo, Rashad V. Chambers, No Guarantees and Public Theater Productions, while Andy Jones and Dylan Pager serve as executive producers. Tony nominee Colman Domingo serves as a co-producer. General management is by Baseline Theatrical.