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My favorite Philly restaurant was once West Philly’s Fat Ham, a casual Southern concept by former Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga. As a Southern belle transplanted to the City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection), I got the feeling of home mixed into the batter of a piece of hot chicken or sandwiched between the buns of an oyster slider. For me, it was the kind of comfort and soul food that included love as one of the main ingredients. Food is, after all, a love language for many. When a beloved asks whether you’re hungry or someone thinks enough about your needs to fix you a plate without prompting, you learn to recognize when love is being served.
At the Wilma’s current run of James Ijames’s Fat Ham, everyone is welcomed to the proverbial cookout—the actual aroma of smoked and grilled meat provided by local eatery Dibbs BBQ filled the theater, and my nose, upon entrance. While there are no plates served to the audience, after the almost two-hour runtime, I felt satiated.
Unapologetically Black, southern, and queer
This reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic borrows from the source material but creates its own world, one that is undeniably and unapologetically Black, Southern, and queer. Fat Ham still centers around death and a family’s misfortunes (“This is a tragedy. We tragic.”) but more importantly, it’s about the survivors and their living, laughing, loving, grappling, and, yes, even eating in the wake of great loss.
“Learn something from your mama on how to keep a man,” Juicy’s mom Tedra says to him when he questions her about making a plate of food for a capable grown man like her new husband Rev, twin brother to and suspected murderer of her recently deceased husband, Pap (Juicy’s father). She instills the idea that you make someone feel loved and cared for by feeding them.
“You like men, dontcha?” she inquires knowingly. Juicy does, he thinks. Soon, his estranged childhood friend Larry, home from his deployment in the Marines, fixes Juicy a plate and makes sure he eats.
Fat Ham for the first time
I reviewed the premiere of Fat Ham when the Wilma produced a filmed version in 2021 (theaters were still empty because of the pandemic). Shot like an indie film on location in Schuyler, Virginia, it could’ve easily been featured at BlackStar or distributed and screened widely. I would not be surprised if some future iteration made its way back to a digital medium. Since then, Fat Ham debuted in its intended medium onstage, appeared off and on Broadway, won Ijames a Pulitzer, and eventually made its way back to the Wilma, where it all began.
At its sold-out opening night, I actually envied those who were experiencing it for the first time, unencumbered by the weight of expectation or comparison. I reasoned with myself that though I was fond of and attached to the iteration I knew, I had to still be open to try something new.
Ultimately, my two Fat Ham viewings were very different, distinguished by the mediums and different ways of viewing. I saw one in a space of stillness and solitude versus the unpredictability and energy of a live audience. One was more contained and quieter; the other was very dynamic and much more camp.
The new recipe
These disparate but connected experiences bring me back to barbecue. When one cook or pitmaster departs, another can take over, bringing his own techniques and seasonings. The menu may be similar, but the spices and specifics will have a distinct blend. Likewise, director Amina Robinson brings her own flavor to this play, helming a talented and accomplished cast and crew. Her recipe updates the pop-culture references, hams up the humor, and encourages more noticeably embodied and physical performances.
The three actors who reprised their 2021 roles (Lindsay Smiling as Pap and Rev, Brandon Pierce as Larry, and Anthony Martinez-Briggs as Tio) anchor the show with stellar supporting performances and the wisdom of having lived in their characters before. Brenson Thomas brings a louder, larger, and more flamboyant Juicy with his physical presence, mannerisms, and voice. Donnie Hammond as Tedra looks almost too young to be his mother, though to be fair, it's hard to tell how old any of the characters are actually supposed to be. Award-winning theater veterans Jessica Johnson and Zuhairah (whom I admired in Quintessence Theatre Group’s 2020 Rachel) breathed new life into Opal and Rabby, respectively.
Fine design and music
In-person versus a film, I was able to notice so much more of the set, lighting, and costume design. Though the sole set is still a backyard somewhere in the south, set designer Sara Brown thoughtfully adds touches like a meat smoker/grill, the wacky inflatable air dancer, and strews a handful of celebratory banners (“It’s a boy,” “Happy birthday,” “Let’s get wild”) that are perfectly inappropriate for the occasion at hand: a wedding reception. Blue lighting typically lends a complementary and cinematic quality to darker, more melanated skin tones, so lighting designer Shon Causer’s blue backlighting hits the mark. Tiffany Bacon’s costumes completed each character, from Juicy’s slightly too-short and too-tight black denim jorts and bedazzled Mama’s Boy t-shirt; Tedra’s also too-short-and-tight denim shorts, sheer blouse, Shein bra, and sparkly platforms; or Rev’s printed jersey short set (the quintessential uniform of Black uncles at backyard barbeques).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music. A full-blown musical would've been too much, but a handful of well-placed musical numbers makes magic. On opening night, Tedra’s sultry karaoke serenade and lap-dance to a rendition of Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” went over the heads of most of the audience but was gut-bustingly hilarious to someone like me, who grew up on 1990s R&B. When Juicy’s breakout performance of the Radiohead classic “Creep” segued into a dreamstate dance sequence, I involuntarily gasped in delight. And the grand finale, to Black queer icon Sylvester’s disco anthem, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” with flower petals for confetti, ends the show on a high note.
Let go and savor
In 2017, my favorite restaurant suddenly closed. A Fat Ham outpost opened briefly in King of Prussia and sporadic popups, but nothing lasted or lived up to what once was. I had to just let go and be open to finding a new favorite. Similarly, I felt a sense of loss and some initial resistance to a new version of Fat Ham, even though I knew I had to let the original one go. Fortunately, my mind stayed open. Had I assumed it wasn’t my cup of tea, I wouldn’t have been able to savor the sweetness.
A filmed version of this Fat Ham production will be available to stream from December 28, 2023 to January 28, 2024 for $29. Get streaming tickets here.
What, When, Where
Fat Ham. By James Ijames, directed by Amina Robinson. $29-$80, with $20 community rush tickets available in person at the box office one hour before showtime. Through December 30, 2023, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street, Philadelphia, and available to stream through January 28, 2023. (215) 546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.
The Wilma is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms. Contact the box office at least 24 hours before the performance if you have questions about accessibility services. There will be a relaxed performance of Fat Ham on Wednesday, December 6, at 2pm and an open caption/audio description on Saturday, December 16, and Sunday, December 17, at 2pm.
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