The Huntington in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective has kicked off its seventh season at the BCA Calderwood Pavilion with a brilliant production of the wildly funny and wise FAT HAM! This show which has already been extended through October 29, marks yet another chapter in a remarkable and eye-opening collaboration changing the face of Boston theater. Front Porch Arts Collective in residence at the Huntington is at the forefront of a theatrical renaissance in Boston, centering the Black experience while inviting everyone onto the front porch! Indeed, together we are more than the sum of our parts.
This time a classic gets a refresh as the 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winner by James Ijames turns Shakespeare’s HAMLET on its head and tragedy into comedy; Denmark becomes a backyard southern BBQ with a feast of revelations, accusations, ghostly intimations and plenty to chew on!
Ijames takes HAMLET’s plot as a template then updates the characters and invents a script that upends the hierarchies on which the Bard’s work is based. The philosopher/poet at the heart of the action is “Juicy” (Hamlet-like) an introspective, queer, Black man who’s got plenty to digest. His mother “Tedra” (Gertrude-like) has just married his uncle “Rev” (Claudius-like) his dead father “Pap” ‘s brother. James T. Alfred thunders playing both Rev and Pap, bullying father figures. When suddenly the ghost of Juicy’s father appears to him announcing that it was Rev who murdered him and orders Juicy to avenge his death–things get really spicy. Suddenly “Ay, there’s the rub” is a pun suggesting this is going to be one hell of a barbecue.
To give you a sense of how this looks onstage, I’m happy to say my alma mater WBZ-TV recently did a feature on the show:
The tone is at once hilarious and dark, sweet and scary, intimate and universal– a melange of complex flavors flawlessly served up by director Stevie Walker-Webb, Tony Award-nominated and Obie Award-winning director whose ingredients include this sensational cast. The first words onstage are spoken by Juicy’s cousin “Tio” (Horatio-like) played by the hilarious Lau’rie Roach and immediately we know we’re in for a good time. His every line is a party. By the climax of the show, Tio will share details of the wet dream he had which leads him to ruminate aloud on the meaning of life rooted in the sheer joy of simply doing what makes you happy. I was laughing as I reclaimed my jaw off the floor.
Marshall W. Mabry IV as Juicy is the calm center of the storm around him. Mabry conveys both strength and sensitivity, and is given to spontaneous, elegant pronouncements. Hamlet-like, he’s a deep thinker and even engages his family in a game of charades to “catch the conscience of the king,” his grasping Uncle Rev. But un-Hamlet-like, Juicy is not simply waiting around to act. He has already acted to flesh out his identity and a new way forward which has nothing to do with any macho pecking order or the family’s restaurant business. Juicy is refined, not “soft” as his father and uncle underestimate him to be– to their peril. Can Juicy both avenge his father’s murder and overturn the legacy of violence in his family? In one way or another, this is the task before every member of the family. Can they rise to the occasion and own their truth?
Juicy’s mother Tedra played by Ebony Marshall-Oliver is a potent force in her own right, knocking us out with her Karaoke monologue as she asserts her needs as a flesh and blood woman. Thomika Marie Bridwell as Tedra’s friend Rabby cracks us up as a no-nonsense mother whose attempts to crack the whip runs smack into the reality/truth of her two adult children: soldier son “Larry “(Laertes- like) played by Amar Atkins is Juicy’s best friend whose fancy marine uniform is an uncomfortable fit, while his sister Opal played by Victoria Omoregie swims like a champ instead of sinking to the watery death of her theatrical ancestor, Ophelia.
The play moves at a brisk 90 minutes as we laugh, and gasp, the action unfolding in the family backyard where the revelations pile up with the potato salad and Pap’s ghost pops out of the grill. When the smoke clears, we understand that from the outset, it’s Juicy who’s known who he is and has not only been holding his own, but also everyone else’s feet to the fire; at this barbecue, it’s the old order that goes up in flames and we wait to see what rises from the ashes. The last scene will leave you reveling in the joy of claiming and proclaiming the truth of who you are, reaffirming some of the best fatherly advice ever given– namely Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s masterpiece:
This above all, – to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.