December 1, 2023
Philly resident James Ijames penned the comedic Shakespeare riff ‘Fat Ham,’ which takes place at a Southern barbecue
BY KRISTIN HUNT – Philly Voice
Philly resident James Ijames became the most celebrated playwright in the city in 2022 when his play “Fat Ham” won a Pulitzer Prize. The humorous take on Shakespeare’s classic “Hamlet” ran off-Broadway for two months and on it for three before transferring to Boston. But later this month, Ijames’ play finally comes to Philadelphia for a nearly month-long stint at the Wilma Theater.
“Fat Ham” takes the Danish courtly drama of “Hamlet” and transfers it to a backyard barbecue in the South, where a young queer Black man named Juicy is reeling from his father’s sudden death. He and the rest of his family have gathered not to mourn, but to celebrate his mother’s extremely quick marriage to Rev, Juicy’s uncle-turned-stepfather. Just as in “Hamlet,” the ghost of Juicy’s father appears demanding vengeance, but unlike “Hamlet,” the hero is extremely reluctant to mete it out. The ensuing story explores identity and intergenerational trauma, broken up with jokes and spirited karaoke performances.
Though “Fat Ham” has never been staged live in Philadelphia, the play has many ties to the Wilma. The Center City theater hosted the digital world premiere of “Fat Ham” in 2021 when it screened a filmed performance of the play, shot in rural Virginia. Ijames also served as the theater’s co-artistic director from 2020 to 2022.
Ijames, who declared himself a “Barbie gal from way back” during this summer’s Barbenheimer craze, is originally from North Carolina, but he earned his MFA from Temple and currently resides in South Philly. He discovered “Hamlet” in college and was immediately drawn to its theme of how “history is visited upon the present,” he told The Daily Beast.
“When I decided to do the adaptation, it just came really easy to me that I should set it in a place that was very familiar to me, and with people I knew,” Ijames continued. “So it’s set in the South at a barbecue in the backyard of a family. My own family isn’t quite as troubled and murderous as in ‘Hamlet,’ but that musicality of language, that overlapping speech of one person falling over and into someone else’s thought just seemed to work, and felt like the same sort of thing Shakespeare is trying to accomplish with his meter.”
“Fat Ham” opens at the Wilma Theater Nov. 24, the evening after Thanksgiving, and closes Dec. 23. Tickets are available now.