In Shakespeare’s version of “Hamlet,” the rub is that once one has shuffled off this mortal coil, they might end up going to hell. In the writer James Ijames’ adaptation of the tale, running at PlayMakers Repertory Company until Feb. 18, the rub is just the spices that go on an old-fashioned Southern barbecue.
“Fat Ham” was nominated for five Tony Awards and won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. PlayMakers is the first theater in North Carolina to produce the play. Ijames grew up in Bessemer City — about half an hour west of Charlotte.
The play centers around the dilemmas of two Black families at a backyard wedding. The protagonist, Juicy (played by Heinley Gaspard), is frustrated with his career prospects while getting an online degree. His friend considers going into online pornography — and that’s all before a ghost tells him his uncle had his father murdered.
Readers of Shakespeare will be familiar with the murder and marriage dynamics of the protagonist’s family, but the play goes beyond its loose source material. It uses its characters to interrogate the struggles of being gay and lesbian in the rural South.
PlayMakers, as always, put on a compelling, energetic performance with its strong troop of professional actors. Samuel Ray Gates stood out for his portrayal of the conniving, homophobic uncle and the ghost of the toxically-masculine father.
A “Hamlet”-ish show with twists on the race, sexuality and gender of the characters is nothing new to campus. Last winter, PlayMakers did “Hamlet” with Black women playing Hamlet and Laertes. In October 2022, a Toronto-based company performed the show with a female lead in Memorial Hall. And in November and December, PlayMakers ran a gender-swapped “Much Ado About Nothing."
There is no shame in performing or riffing one of the English language’s most influential plays, but we shouldn’t pretend that any production that casts for increased gender and racial diversity is automatically trailblazing, innovative and insightful.
It is to its credit that “Fat Ham” is not a mere re-setting of Shakespeare’s famous play in a more modern, diverse guise.
Most importantly, it finds a way to turn the tragedy on its head, by breaking cycles of violence rather than perpetuating them. “Fat Ham” shows the promise of the 21st century stage, but it also shows some of its perils.