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Review: Playmakers' 'Fat Ham' shows peril and promise of liberated theater, culture

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PlayMakers Repertory Company is located at 120 Country Club Road on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. The company brings the community together through theatre with the hope of exposing a variety of actors' talent to the public on a large scale.

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.

At the end of Shakespeare’s tale, nearly all the important characters lie dead on the stage. PlayMakers’ “Fat Ham” ends with a disco ball dropping from the ceiling for an epic dance party, described in Ijames’ script as “a celebration of the feminine” which moves “from something normal to something sublime.”

It bears an uncanny resemblance to the Barbie Land of this summer’s blockbuster: the ideal is to have a dance party after which characters presumably live happily-ever-after as liberated, true-to-themselves individualists whose central value is to do what makes them happy. 

Be yourself, do what makes you happy and don’t think too deeply about it. This is the message, I think, that much of 21st century American culture pushes us to absorb.

And at the points where it references “Hamlet,” “Fat Ham” seems near-sardonic towards the Bard’s unironic wrestlings with questions of mortality, morality and meaning.

Hamlet finding Yorick’s skull inspires a famous dialogue reflecting on death. Maybe our culture doesn’t need another monologue about how the body eventually turns to dust, but it proves quite a contrast that when Juicy hears that Yorick died of a drug overdose, the extent of his contemplation is “Damn,” “He dead?” and “I wonder if he was ever okay?”

If this is a reflection of a broader aspect of our culture, it’s also reflective of an artistic scene that has become stagnant and obscure.

The world of theater has been declining in cultural relevance. While PlayMakers sits at the heart of a large college campus, most of the audience for “Fat Ham” looked like it was drawing Social Security checks.

Like the industry at large, the PlayMakers cast is stacked with stellar, compelling performers and producers who put on a good show.

But if theater wants to maintain some cultural relevance, rather than be the obscure and declining province of a few highly-educated pensioners, it needs new ideas. This play celebrating the liberated individual and more diverse versions of Shakespeare is a start, but I worry its not enough.

@satchelwalton

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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