In Fat Ham, James Ijames relocates Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the kingdom of Denmark to a modern-day backyard in “North Carolina, or Virginia, or Maryland, or Tennessee.”
The playwright infuses the tale with the culturally specific atmosphere of Black Americana — pork on the grill, brown liquor flowing, and Frankie Beverly singing “Before I Let Go” as a grown and sexy couple grooves to the music. But instead of a pondering prince, we have melancholy only-son Juicy (Marquis D. Gibson) as our de facto host.
The vibrant, emotionally rich production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy at Studio, directed by Taylor Reynolds, plunks the audience down in that backyard — which probably isn’t in Maryland, since nobody’s serving crab — for an up-close seat at a family BBQ filled with laughs, fun, fights, fabulous karaoke, and, obviously, Shakespearean levels of raging domestic dysfunction.
Despite the genuine sense of love and fellowship at this gathering, a poison eats away at the heart of Juicy’s family — or rather, a poisonous mixture of the ills that ravage many families.
Violence, betrayal, and generations of trauma are personified in Juicy’s uncle, Rev (Greg Alverez Reid), the fratricidal usurper of his brother’s house and beautiful wife, Tedra (Tanesha Gary).
Rev is also bitterly demeaning towards his nephew — now stepson — Juicy, who is gay, and none too pleased to see his mother married to this creep. And that’s before Juicy is visited by the ghost of his dead dad, Pap (also Reid), sporting an angelic white suit with a ghostly glow, courtesy of costume designer Danielle Preston.
Pap warns of “Some scary stuff happening,” then entreats Juicy to avenge his murder by slaughtering Rev like a hog. Pap, it seems, was no less cruel and violent than his brother, even to his own son. “He can’t pound on me anymore,” Juicy explains, deeply confused that he still grieves his abuser.
Juicy, as with any Hamlet, must poke through profound darkness to find his path through these confused emotions, a rocky journey that Gibson conveys brilliantly, while also maintaining the ease and warmth of the character.
And where Ijames’ script gives way to well-placed interpolations of Shakespeare’s text and speeches, Gibson renders the language with the same wit and nuance he applies to Juicy’s showstopping, super-emo karaoke take on Radiohead’s “Creep.” That is to say, he kills it.
But will Juicy kill his Uncle Rev? As portrayed by Reid, who heartily manifests Rev’s malevolent energy, the guy certainly has it coming to him. The play suggests that striking a deadly blow against the festering hatred of homophobia might be all that saves this family.
Eradicating anti-LGBTQ hate and intolerance is key to saving more than just this family, seems to be the show’s message to Black America.
Juicy isn’t the only one at this party with a coming-out story to tell. Family friends Rabby (Kelli Blackwell), and her son Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb) and daughter Opal (Gaelyn D. Smith) also experience a Queer awakening close to home. In their fast-changing world, love and acceptance might be what prevents their stories from ending in tragedy.
For most of its time onstage, however, Fat Ham deals in hilarity, well-played by all in the cast, but especially by Blackwell as holy rolling Rabby, dryly funny Gary as mama Tedra, and Gibson, who serves Juicy’s melancholy and malaise with a fine-tuned side of fierceness.
Fat Ham (★★★★☆) runs through Dec. 23, at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $75 to $125. Call 202-332-3300, or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.
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