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“Fat Ham” is making its triumphant return to Philadelphia.
The play by local playwright James Ijames is loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” but set in a Black backyard BBQ party in the American South. The Wilma Theater on South Broad Street was ready to give the play its world premiere in 2021, but the pandemic shutdown forced all theaters to close. So the production was re-imagined as a streaming film, shot on location in rural Virginia within a quarantined pandemic “bubble.”
Although it had a rocky start, the play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, have a Broadway run, and was nominated for five Tony Awards. “Fat Ham” is now one of the most produced plays in America, with 10 companies across the country staging it this season.
Two years after premiering the play online, the Wilma Theater is putting “Fat Ham” on stage the way it had originally intended.
“It feels like coming home,” said Ijames, who had been a co-artistic director at the Wilma before the success of “Fat Ham” forced him to pull away. “This feels so good. This play was supposed to have a world premiere with a set and a live audience. To actually finally have that feels really, really nice.”
The play is based on the premise of “Hamlet”: A patriarch, Pap, is killed by his brother, Rev (played by Lindsay Smiling, who also plays the ghost of Pap), then the son Juicy must confront his “uncle daddy.”
“Juicy’s uncle marries his mother, and the play picks up at their wedding reception-slash-barbecue,” said director Amina Robinson, who interrupted herself by cracking up. “I can’t even say that without laughing. It’s so ridiculous.”
Robinson has left little moments in the play where the actors are allowed to goof around as they wish. It can be raunchy and farcical, and self-aware: Juicy knows this plot sounds a lot like Shakespeare, and sometimes addresses the audience directly.
The core of the play is quite serious. It examines generational cycles of violence, and how Juicy can avenge his father’s death while not perpetuating the kind of trauma of which he, himself, is a victim.
“It beautifully explores and begs the question: ‘What comes after?’ At least that’s what I pull from the text,” Robinson said. “If we break the cycles of violence, if we get rid of all the toxicity that can be found in our notions of masculinity, what’s left for us? Where do we go from there?”
Although the Wilma originally produced “Fat Ham” as a film, Ijames always intended it to be performed live on stage. He said theater’s great draw is its ability to be a space where the audience can practice citizenship.
“You arrive, you have your ticket, you have your little bit of real estate in your chair. You may be sitting beside one person, but most people are sitting beside at least one person that they have never met before,” he said.
“You proceed to move through a story that takes you from laughing to weeping to singing along. You may have vastly different experiences of what’s happening on stage. You learn about what moves and affects other people,” Ijames said. “That’s really powerful. It builds the empathy impulse in you.”
The popularity of “Fat Ham” means the play has launched a life of its own. Different companies will put their own interpretations on Ijames text, which he is fine with. He only asks that they never change one essential element: It has to take place at a backyard barbecue.
“I haven’t seen a production in the South yet. I’m very excited to see what that looks like and feels like,” he said. “The thing about writing a play is that once it’s in the world it can look many different ways. I like that. That excites me.”
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