A story all its own

The Wilma presents James Ijames’s ‘Fat Ham’

3 minute read
A scene from Fat Ham. A close-up on two Black men, one tenderly holding the other's head on his shoulder.
Strength in vulnerability and sensitivity: Brennen S. Malone (left) and Brandon J. Pierce in Ijames's ‘Fat Ham.’ (Image courtesy of the Wilma.)

“What do you do when God don’t want you and the devil won’t have you?” ponders Juicy, the main character of the Wilma’s latest streaming premiere, Fat Ham. Looking into the camera, he speaks directly to us.

He’s referring to his father, Pap, whose ghost has appeared to haunt his son just a week after being murdered in jail. Pap believes his brother Rev (both played by Lindsay Smiling) is behind the murder and wants Juicy to avenge his death. Rev has also hastily married Pap’s widow, and as a viewer, you are a guest at their wedding-reception barbeque.

But Juicy’s question also summarizes what it too often feels like to be Black in America—in a purgatory where we are made hyper-visible and simultaneously still devalued and dehumanized. What happens during the in-between? When Black lives mattering is still a topic of debate and “I can’t breathe” a rallying cry, depictions of Black people existing and experiencing all the ups and downs of their daily lives outside of the constant gaze of white supremacy is an act of resistance.

Sensitivity over spectacle

James Ijames’s new play, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, could have easily gone the route of tragedy porn, playing up tired stereotypes of Black poverty, criminality, and pain. But these characters refuse to be made into spectacle. Instead, Fat Ham is a tender and nuanced look at Black family, identity, and humanity. While there are plenty of (arguably too many) references to the source material via narrative, monologue, quote, pun, and song, this is a story all its own.

A talented and energetic ensemble cast is anchored by Brennen S. Malone as Juicy, who is described repeatedly as ‘soft,’ a euphemism for queer, but exhibits strength in his vulnerability and sensitivity. As Juicy, he is fluid himself, flowing through the intricacies of each intimate exchange and encounter with every other character with great embodiment and commitment.

Another standout performance comes from Anthony Martinez-Briggs as Tio. As the stand-in for a classic Shakespearean fool archetype, he delivers necessary wisdom with levity and humor, seamlessly weaving discussions of intergenerational trauma and prioritizing pleasure as praxis with getting high and gingerbread-man fellatio. He is both a scene stealer and a great supportive character. And director Morgan Green’s casting deserves credit for its range of Blackness across age, color, sexuality, and ethnicity, the different identities blending and complementing each other nicely.

Queering and questioning

The piece suited the format of film so well that I could not imagine it onstage. It would easily fit into the lineup at a Sundance or SXSW screening, and screens like a well-made indie. Though its nearly two-hour runtime erred on the side of long, there were very few slumps. Filmed on location in Virginia, the wooded backyard and decorated back facade of a country home created an organic and yet fantastic foundation for the story to unfold.

And this story does not end as you may think. Being Black is neither tragic, nor should it confine one to a life (or death) of tragedy. We will all die someday, but it is the queering and questioning that make life worth living today. So while you still can, why not go ham?

Image description: A scene from Fat Ham. In a close-up shot of two Black men, actor Brennen S. Malone leans tenderly on the shoulder of actor Brandon J. Pierce, who is dressed in a uniform with a white shirt and black tie.

What, When, Where

Fat Ham. By James Ijames. Directed by Morgan Green. Streaming on demand ($37) through May 23, 2021. wilmatheater.org.

Closed captioning is available in English and Spanish, and an audio-described version of the stream will be available soon. Advance tickets for the audio-described version are available here.

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