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  • Writer's pictureFrank Schierloh

REVIEW: Fat Ham (Wilma Theater, Philadelphia, PA)

The Pulitzer Winning Play Comes Home to Philly in a Spirited Production. 

The key to a successful adaptation is having reverence for the original source material, while also having a distinctive voice and point of view in the retelling. This sentiment is on full display at the Wilma Theater with their return engagement of Pulitzer winning play Fat Ham, by local playwright James Ijames. Reframing the story of Hamlet through a queer, black lens breathes new life into a story that has been seen and adapted time and again. While every choice might not land, what happens for 95 minutes on the Wilma stage is an absolute celebration, headed by an incredible cast and supported by a production that evokes a staggering amount of humor and heart. 

A Scene from The Wilma Theater's Production of Fat Ham.
Zuhairah (Rabby) and Donnie Hammond (Tedra) in The Wilma Theater's 2023 Production of Fat Ham. Photo by Johanna Austin.

She’s Juicy

In Fat Ham, the character of Hamlet is now Juicy, a young, queer, black man living in the South. His father has been murdered, and his uncle has recently married his mother. While the show roughly follows the beats of Hamlet, it subverts them at every opportunity. There are ghosts, and soliloquies, but they ring differently. Juicy is no longer just contemplating life and death, he’s contemplating larger societal issues about the intersection of being queer and black. He’s debating how he can maintain his softness in a world that is constantly telling him to harden. He’s navigating this world with two other closeted queer characters (Opal and Larry, the reimagined Ophelia and Laertes), and how they can not only survive, but live truthfully. It's a remarkably compelling narrative that really transforms the story of Hamlet enough for the audience to feel like they are experiencing something anew. 

That being said, the end of the show gets slightly muddled. A lot happens at the end of Hamlet, and in keeping with that, a lot happens at the end of Fat Ham. It does smartly and delightfully subvert the tropes of a traditional tragedy, instead focusing on joy and survival. However, the final flurry of events feel a bit rushed, and are not given enough time to fully settle. The show also seems to switch the focus from Juicy’s journey of self assuredness, and his fight for acceptance from those around him, to Larry’s new expressions of his true self, and the immediate acceptance of his loved ones. This moment is big and bold, and beautiful, but feels slightly in juxtaposition to the preceding narrative of the show; while it is rightfully celebratory for Larry, it feels a bit odd to not give that moment of catharsis to Juicy. 

A scene from the Wilma Theater's Production of Fat Ham
Jessica Johnson (Opal) and Brenson Thomas (Juicy) in The Wilma Theater's 2023 Production of Fat Ham. Photo by Johanna Austin.

Pass Me a Plate of BBQ, Please.

Director Amina Robinson has assembled a truly stellar cast of performers to bring this piece to life. She gave them all the space to be creative and craft undeniable versions of these characters, and it’s a treat to watch. As Juicy, Brenson Thomas shines. He’s effervescent and hilarious, getting the audience on his side from his first knowing side glance. Juicy is a role that could outshine all of the other characters, but Thomas smartly plays the role in a way that gives him his standout moments (a compelling rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” for starters) while also constantly supporting and playing with the rest of the ensemble. It’s a fantastic performance that deserves heaps of praise. 

Thomas is matched by each new character that gets introduced, and there isn’t a weak performance among the cast. Some standouts include Jessica Johnson as Opal, the updated version of Ophelia. Johnson fills Opal with an assuredness and confidence that is magnetic to watch. Their physical choices throughout the show are spectacular, and often draw attention even when they aren’t speaking. Anthony Martinez-Briggs is absolutely hysterical as Tio, Juicy’s friend (and this show’s version of Horatio). They deliver an absurdist monologue about three quarters of the way through the show that rightfully had the entire audience howling with laughter, which is just the icing on top of the cake of an all-around fantastic performance. 

A scene from the Wilma Theater's 2023 Production of Fat Ham.
Brenson Thomas (Juicy) and Brandon J. Pierce (Larry) in the Wilma Theater's 2023 Production of Fat Ham. Photo by Johanna Austin.

To Ham, or Not to Ham.

Fat Ham is an important piece of the contemporary theatrical canon for myriad reasons, and the production currently playing at the Wilma is a fantastic version of it to be introduced to. All of the design aspects work in harmony with the magnificent cast, and wonderful direction abounds to highlight the show's many high points. The show is framed and set as a simple “backyard wedding reception-barbeque” but within it is a magnificent celebration of humanity and finding one’s true self. While the ending may rush things a touch, it doesn’t take away from the impact of the piece.

Also, the barbeque smelled SO GOOD. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping the show would invite the audience onstage for some ribs! It added so wonderfully to the immersion of the show, a natural addition considering the soliloquies present, with characters addressing the audience so directly. The audience doesn’t just watch Fat Ham, they get to play in the back yard with these characters too.

Fat Ham is playing at the

Wilma Theater (265 S. Broad Street) now and has been extended through

December 30th, 2023. 

For more information visit:

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