Playwright James Ijames has loved “Hamlet” ever since he read the play at Atlanta’s Morehouse College and acted in an abbreviated student production as a freshman there. It prompted him to change his major to theater, and he “never looked back.” Fast-forward many years later, and Ijames (pronounced “Imes”) recalls seeing a couple of high-concept versions of Shakespeare’s towering tragedy that left him “perplexed.”
“I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to get into them. They weren’t bad, but I thought, ‘Does this story matter anymore? For me in this audience right now, what am I getting out of this play?’ ”
He thought: “What if the characters sounded and looked like people that I grew up with? That would make me happy. I would enjoy it if Polonius gave out advice the way my great-aunt gave out advice, or if Ophelia behaved the way my younger sister behaved. I could see the versions of those people in my life populating that story.”
The play that sprang forth, “Fat Ham,” is a loose adaptation of “Hamlet” set at a raucous backyard barbecue that’s on the verge of going sideways. The play scrambles up the story, characters, and dramatic beats of Shakespeare’s work — the brooding lost soul, the spectral visitation, the father’s plea to avenge his death, and the torn hero — but puts a fresh and riotous spin on its themes and ideas, along with a dash of drag and roof-raising karaoke. The play won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and premiered at New York’s Public Theater that summer, before bowing on Broadway last spring, where it was greeted with rave reviews and nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Starting Friday, the Huntington, in association with the Front Porch Arts Collective and Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, is presenting the Boston debut of “Fat Ham” at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre, through Oct. 29.
Set in small North Carolina town, the play follows the outlines of “Hamlet” while setting its own course. Juicy (Marshall W. Mabry), the Hamlet stand-in, is a moody young gay man with softness, intelligence, and a sharp wit. His best friend and cousin, Tio (Lau’rie Roach), inspired by Hamlet’s pal Horatio, is an affable stoner-philosopher type who helps Juicy set up for the wedding celebration of Juicy’s mother, Tedra (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), and his uncle Rev (James T. Alfred), a charismatic pit master. They married just days after Juicy’s father died.
The ghost of Juicy’s father, Pap, soon appears and reveals to Juicy that Rev is responsible for his death, and he commands him to avenge his murder. Arriving at the cookout are a trio of family friends: the Ophelia-inspired Opal (Victoria Omoregie), a tough, intrepid spirit who rejects traditional notions of femininity; the Laertes-esque Larry (Amar Atkins), an awkward and stoic Marine who shares a secret with Juicy; and their moralizing mother Rabby (Thomika Marie Bridwell).
“Juicy is aimless but stubborn, which is a terrible combination,” Ijames says. “But he’s fiercely protective of his mother and will do anything for her.”
While the playwright, like Juicy, has a reverence for Shakespeare — Ijames weaves in some of the language and key lines from “Hamlet” — he also isn’t afraid to move beyond the Bard’s gravitational pull. Tedra’s barbed comment to her son could be Ijames admonishing himself: “If you bring up that dead old white man one mo time … You act like he’s got all the answers.” Instead, Ijames remixes some of the characters’ traits or invents them anew.
Ijames sees the play not as a revenge story but as a meditation on how people can conquer the family baggage and psychological demons of their past in order to blaze new trails for themselves.
“What do you do when you’re confronted with a cycle in your family? Do you continue it or do you stop it? That’s the problem for Juicy,” Ijames says. “Does he want to do what [his family] has always done, or does he want to do something different? My play, in a lot of ways, is about breaking generational curses. The legacies we inherit from our parents and grandparents aren’t necessarily the things we have to keep.”
“I feel like that’s at the core of ‘Hamlet,’ too. Hamlet’s father comes to him as a ghost and says, ‘This bad thing happened to me. Now it’s your problem.’ But I wonder, in terms of legacy, about how much of my problems I want to leave to the next generation.”
Ijames, who’s in his early 40s and is a professor of theater at Villanova University, argues that millennials and Gen Z just see the world in a different way. “There’s this generation of people whose idea about gender and identity and sexual orientation are radically different from the older generations,” he says. “They’re just like, ‘I don’t want to do it the way it’s always been done, and there’s no rule that says that I have to.’”
Having grown up in a small town outside of Charlotte, N.C., Ijames can relate to the way Hamlet and Juicy feel like misfits in the world, even within a family. “I have a very loving family, and I’ve never felt ostracized by them, but I have always been a little odd inside of my family, like I was outside of the norm, and I think that’s OK. You got to have somebody that’s odd.”
The play interrogates traditional notions of masculinity, and for the queer characters in “Fat Ham,” the “to be or not to be?” question isn’t an existential one about life or death. Instead, it’s about how to navigate the world as outsiders.
“The queer question in [the past] was, ‘Are we people who exist?’ That’s not a question we have anymore. Now it’s like, ‘How do I want to exist? Who do I want to be?’ And that’s Juicy’s conundrum, Juicy’s struggle, and also Opal’s struggle and Larry’s struggle. And all of that feels like it’s genuinely born out of the DNA of ‘Hamlet.’ ”
Director Stevie Walker-Webb, who helmed “Ain’t No Mo” on Broadway last season, relishes how the play serves as a “homage” to “Hamlet,” but also “pokes fun” at Shakespeare, while departing from the original text and its tragic ending.
“There’s this pivotal moment in [’Fat Ham’] where all of the characters question, ‘Does our end have to be so macabre? Does it have to be so divisive and destructive? Now that we’ve journeyed through all these epiphanies, can we write a different story?’ And I think that’s the question we’re all faced with right now.”
Presented by the Huntington, in association with the Alliance Theatre and the Front Porch Arts Collective. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Sept. 22-Oct. 29. Tickets from $30. 617-266-0800, huntingtontheatre.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.