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‘Fat Ham’ Leaves Audiences Feeling Lighter

Marshall W. Mabry IV. The Huntington’s "Fat Ham" runs at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA through Oct. 29, in co-production with Front Porch Arts Collective and Alliance Theatre.
Marshall W. Mabry IV. The Huntington’s "Fat Ham" runs at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA through Oct. 29, in co-production with Front Porch Arts Collective and Alliance Theatre. By Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson
By Vivienne N. Germain, Crimson Staff Writer

“To thine own self be true,” the unlikeable Polonius says in Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet.” In its original context, the message is not inspiring — but its modern-day interpretation encourages self-truth and authentic living. Likewise, the Pulitzer Prize-winning new play “Fat Ham” by James Ijames reinvents “Hamlet” into a contemporary story that embraces being oneself, while exploring identity, sensitivity, intersectionality, and happiness.

In association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective, Huntington Theatre Company brings the comedic, dramatic, and ultimately gleeful “Fat Ham” to Boston, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb with Associate Director Dawn M. Simmons. Set during a family barbecue, the play handles the experiences of a Black family in the South and celebrates Black, queer joy. The Huntington’s production of “Fat Ham” amuses and enthralls audiences, largely due to outstanding performances from actors.

Faced with a similar plight as Prince Hamlet, “Fat Ham”’s protagonist Juicy considers his deceased father’s ghost’s demand to kill his murderer, Juicy’s uncle and new stepfather. But “Fat Ham” is not “Hamlet” — Juicy also considers his goals to pave a brighter future for himself, a queer Black man navigating his identity and seeking contentment and freedom. Through multi-layered storytelling, colorful music, and a skillful mélange of drama and humor, Walker-Webb presents a gripping and hilarious play.

The cast of “Fat Ham” masterfully harmonizes dramatic moments — the tender, the tense, and the impassioned — with vivid comedy. The moments that create suspense and those that tug at audience’s heartstrings fit smoothly with the moments that elicit laughter and those that charm and delight. The inseparability of these elements brings out the complexity of Juicy’s circumstances and the complexity of life as a Black, queer person in the South or anywhere; it also allows the 90-minute, one-act play to flow in a natural and captivating manner.

Marshall W. Mabry shines in his portrayal of the compelling, lovable Juicy. Unlike the other bubbly characters, Mabry’s Juicy carries a heavy weight that highlights his mourning of his father’s death, his inner struggle, and his unique personality that separates and sometimes isolates him from his family. However, his emotional weight does not isolate him from the audience, as Mabry’s exceptional delivery of serious dialogue, humorous punchlines, and a few Shakespearean soliloquies, as well as his profound portrayal of Juicy’s sweetness and softness, allow the audience to connect with him, care about him, and root for him.

Additionally, actors Lau’rie Roach (Tio, the counterpart to Shakespeare’s Horatio), Victoria Omoregie (Opal, the Ophelia counterpart), and Amar Atkins (Larry, the Laertes counterpart) deliver standout performances as Juicy’s cousins. Roach comically embodies Tio’s carefree silliness, Omoregie is convincingly bold and self-assured, and Atkins brings both strength and sensitivity to his character. All three of them thrive from their expert comedic timing and well-developed, character-specific physicality. While Juicy is clearly the focus of the play, his cousins add essential depth, nuance, and playfulness that give Juicy the room to grow and “Fat Ham” a fun spirit.

The cast renders the story an exciting and lively show, but excellent costume design by Celeste Jennings strengthens their performances, crucially enhancing the play’s success. Juicy’s black clothes stand out among the other colors onstage and remind the audience of his grief, and their stylish designs display his individuality. Opal, a tomboy and a lesbian who faces pressure to fit a traditional woman’s role, wears a pink, frilly dress that does not suit her, while finding comfort and confidence in the sneakers and shorts she wears at the same time.

The Huntington’s “Fat Ham” is a well-done, must-see show that engages and enchants theatergoers, regardless of their identities and cultural backgrounds. It’s funny, it’s fresh, and it’s delicious food for thought. Sometimes holding audiences at the edge of their seats, sometimes moving audiences past the edge of laughter, “Fat Ham” does not disappoint. It’s fun — and after the dynamic show, audiences will surely leave the theater feeling lighter.

“Fat Ham” runs at The Huntington’s Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA (527 Tremont St.) through Oct. 15.

—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at vivienne.germain@thecrimson.com.

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