REVIEW: Fat Ham
I have little memory of Hamlet, a play which I most likely read in the tenth or eleventh grade. But luckily for viewers, Fat Ham relies little on prior knowledge of Shakespeare's work. Instead, it refreshes and repositions the narrative, using a new protagonist, Juicy, to introduce new themes, new issues, and new personalities.
Visited by the ghost of his dead father, Juicy is pushed to avenge his death during a family barbecue. As he struggles with the task at hand, Juicy’s deliberations—both internal and external—lead viewers on a journey of self-discovery that touches on family, race, gender, and sexuality.
While the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, written by James Ijames and directed by Saheem Ali, is full of numerous praiseworthy moments—some that break the fourth wall, others that involve song and dance, and others still that revert back to Shakespearean English—it’s the trajectory of Larry, Juicy's family friend of the same age, that intrigued me the most.
The hyper-masculine opposite to Juicy’s much-criticized “soft” demeanor, Larry arrives at the barbecue in military garb, answering questions in curt, deep grunts. He is un-emotive, un-expressive, rigid, and quintessentially masculine. And while I initially dismissed Larry as a simple, two-dimensional foil for Larry’s overt gay-ness, a startling and vindictive declaration revealed a more complex set of intentions and conflicts.
Unlike Juicy, whose effeminate demeanor immediately betrays a sexual identity that he may like to keep private, Larry finds security behind his hyper-masculine disposition. It seems, at first, that this type of gay identity—the ability to choose when to hide or reveal oneself—would offer numerous benefits when compared to a more conspicuous gay persona. But, when family has made it clear that they disapprove of homosexuality, in what instance would you ever reveal this side of yourself? So while Juicy must endure a more public form of ridicule, from family members that decry his nonconforming ways, Larry is, essentially, trapped beneath a mask that feels too comfortable to ever take off.
This is a foundational element of gay identity, lived daily by thousands of gay men and women across the world. The question: when, if ever, will you get the chance to be yourself? The stakes: knowing the time will never be just right, knowing the countless individuals who will disapprove, knowing your life will be different, in ways both good and bad, after this declaration. Fat Ham is, in many ways, a glimpse into this internal struggle, seen from numerous perspectives—Juicy’s, Larry’s, and Opal’s. We watch as these characters struggle, self-sabotage, and sabotage one another as they wrestle with self-identity in the context of the family. The timing, it seems, may never be quite right. But, in the end, each chooses to seize the moment anyway.
In an early moment of levity, Juicy, Larry, and Opal discuss their plans for the future, outlining who’d they’d like to be, or wish they could’ve been instead. Larry, shockingly, wants to be a performer. Juicy and Opal laugh, along with the audience. For such a terse and stiff individual, this dream seems like a wish too far. But for someone willing to transform themself completely, and throw away the comforts of an entrenched identity, it might not be so out of the question.