What a Piece of Work is ‘Fat Ham’ at the Wilma

December 4, 2023

By Tracy Hawkins

I have heard Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” described as a play about procrastination, a play about misogyny, a play about revenge, and so on. I have never heard it described as a comedy. Ay, there’s the rub. The glorious production of James Ijames’ Pulitzer prize-winning, Tony-nominated play “Fat Ham” at the Wilma Theater takes Shakespeare’s very serious work and pokes holes in all the things that made sense 400-plus years ago. Director Amina Robinson has assembled a first-rate cast, who deliver the dialogue in rapid-fire exchanges that you might hear at your neighborhood barbecue.

Yes, that is the premise: a backyard barbecue in honor of the wedding of Juicy’s (too recently widowed) mother Tedra to his Uncle Rev. The ghost of Juicy’s father (Pap) and Rev are played with unholy glee by Wilma’s Co-Artistic Director Lindsay Smiling. While his bride (the hilarious Donnie Hammond) shimmies around the stage in joy, she also connects with her son tenderly. The guests include not Polonius pontificating, but rather the raucous church lady Rabby (Zuhairah) and her children, Larry (Brandon Pierce) and Opal (Jessica Johnson).

Juicy’s best friend, Tio (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) is a stoner who offers the occasional wise observation along with a beer. Luckily, he never has to utter Horatio’s last line, “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Because, unlike Hamlet’s ending, with bodies littering the stage, “Fat Ham” chooses a happier path.

Brenson Thomas as Juicy does a lot of the heavy lifting. In addition to borrowing plot elements from Shakespeare, Ijames has also made his main character a complicated young man, struggling to understand the world around him as it rapidly changes, and to understand his place in it. It’s a lovely performance: powerful, touching, funny. 

The production elements of the show complement the performances beautifully. Sara Brown’s set design, and Tiffany Bacon’s costumes are letter-perfect, and the lighting design by Shon Causer and sound design by Larry Fowler are top-notch.

The production runs through Dec. 23. Tickets and information at www.wilmatheater.org.

Photos by Johanna Austin.