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How Philly playwright James Ijames envisioned ‘Fat Ham,’ a Black queer retelling of ‘Hamlet’

Through reimagining "Hamlet" at a Southern barbecue, Ijames makes space for “both violence and pleasure.”

Playwright James Ijames stands for a portrait in Mifflin Square Park in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. His new filmed production, "Fat Ham," is a queer adaption of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" set in the American South and will be available to stream from the Wilma Theater from April 29 to May 23.
Playwright James Ijames stands for a portrait in Mifflin Square Park in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. His new filmed production, "Fat Ham," is a queer adaption of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" set in the American South and will be available to stream from the Wilma Theater from April 29 to May 23.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

At the end of Hamlet, almost everybody dies. James Ijames, in his reimagining of Shakespeare, decided all of his characters weren’t going out like that.

“I don’t want to depict Black tragedy,” said Ijames, who’s taken the bones from a murderous classic to create his own absurdly hilarious piece. “We get a lot of that. In many circles, that is the primary mode of understanding and experiencing Blackness for many people — through trauma and pain, and through tragedy.”

Rather than have the intrigue play out in a royal castle in Denmark, Ijames placed his contemporary retelling at a barbecue somewhere in the South. In Fat Ham, set to premiere online April 29 through the Wilma Theater, a specter hangs over the family, literally, but so do questions of how the characters are going get free. Ijames, the Wilma’s co-artistic director and a theater professor at Villanova University, looks at barbecue as a way to talk about “both violence and pleasure.” But the North Carolina-raised playwright also flipped the play this way because of what he saw growing up.

“I love barbecues, so that’s the selfish reason,” said Ijames, who now lives in South Philly. “I love the way people talk, I love the things that people do. I love how music functions at barbecues. I love the smell. I love how, you know, at least the churchy Black folks in the South, how they try to sneak the nip, the little bit of alcohol, because … the preacher might stop by.

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“The ‘who made it?’ — Who made the potato salad? Who made the macaroni and cheese? — that competitive gamesmanship that happens between people who love each other fiercely around food, I think it’s really dramatic. And it’s some of the first theater I ever saw,” he said, noting that his great-aunt had been a caterer who was “very particular” about her barbecue sauce. “If I think back on it, like a lot of my understanding of the theatrical comes from watching my uncles, watching my aunts, watching my mother and grandmother — that whole theater of feeding people.”

The play’s action all happens within a couple hours, before and during the barbecue. A preacher in a small town is marrying his just-widowed sister-in-law, Tedra. Barbecue is the family business, and the cookout is their wedding celebration. The bride’s deceased husband reappears as a ghost early on to tell their son, Juicy, that it was Uncle Rev who had him killed. Juicy is our Hamlet here, of course. As Juicy ponders grief and vengeance, he’s also hanging up streamers and forced to sing backup for his mother’s wedding day karaoke rendition of Mya’s “My Love Is Like... Wo.”

Ijames never names exactly the city or state where they are. The writer, who’s from Bessemer City, N.C., likes his sauce sweet-and-spicy with no mustard base but knows that barbecue has a lot of regional variety.

“If you’re in Memphis, you gonna get one thing, if you’re in Louisiana, you gonna get a different thing. In Florida, you might not be able to find any good barbecue — I’m being shady,” he said. “I want us sort of set in this place that is the Black South, that has a lot of shared experience, and ways, and ways of speaking, foodways, but also, a lot of it’s very dynamic and very diverse inside of it.”

There’s an intergenerational dynamic that’s richly detailed in bits throughout the piece. Someone from the younger set recommends that Juicy start an OnlyFans, while later Rev reminisces on how his sister-in-law/wife looked amazing back in the day when they used to roller-skate to Teena Marie’s “Square Biz.” The younger characters are on the LGBTQ spectrum, navigating how their elders see them while also sorting through how they (would like to) see themselves.

Through carefully employing insults that some may see as normal — like on someone’s presentation or choice of dress — Ijames exposes the parental reactions for what they are: policing Black queer bodies and enforcing homophobia. So even though Fat Ham isn’t a tragedy, familial violence is still there. Even without a heavy body count, the play still shows how hate and cruelty among kin is dangerous, including for the people spewing it.

“My great-grandmother used to say, ‘Sometimes the Hanged Man ties his own noose,’ ” Ijames said. “But it’s really true that sometimes the elements of your oppression become the tools of your own destruction.”

Juicy is queer and “thicc.” The playwright explained that he wrote Juicy’s size into the piece explicitly, because he didn’t think that larger actors would be cast otherwise.

“I think they always just go with what the society says the beauty ideal is,” he said of casting. “I really wanted to write a play in which it’s impossible to do without casting a thicc person in that role. And that’s the person that then we have to watch be adored.”

Many jokes appear through the characters’ reactions to the scandal and tragedy covering the big day. Juicy, thoughtful and empathic, is trying to reason his way through that mess. From considering whether he’ll heed what his father’s ghost told him to forging a life outside of the family biz, Juicy’s character does more than act as the comedy device of “the straight man.” He’s not simply the figure who’s funny through keeping his composure. He’s one of the characters navigating how to show up in his life fully, and his responses often challenge notions that he should be made to live another way.

For Ijames, the players in Fat Ham are on a path toward change and liberation. Still, reaching a place where you truly feel liberated, he explained, takes more time than a two-hour play. The kith and kin at the cookout aren’t quite there yet.

“That’s why I hate the term ‘woke,’ ” he said with a sigh. “Because it’s like, one doesn’t wake up gradually. There’s a narrative to waking up — you’re asleep and then you’re awake, or some state of awake. Some people say ‘woke’ as if it’s a finished thing.”

He continued, “It is a long process to unlearning horrible, harmful, racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic ideas. That stuff doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen because you listen to How to Be an Antiracist on the treadmill for two weeks — that’s not how it works. And so I wanted to show people in different states of their journey towards becoming who they actually are.”