James Ijames has spoken of his interest in the things that people inherit from their families. In that light, it is not surprising that this inspired African-American playwright has looked to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as well as biblical references in his 2022 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Fat Ham.”
The Huntington, in association with Alliance Theatre and the Front Porch Arts Collective, are bringing Ijames’ clever take on the Bard’s great tragedy to vivid, often hilarious life in its local premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion.
Ijames describes each of his play’s characters as “kind of ” their respective namesakes — with good reason. While set in the backyard of a house that the playbill indicates could be in Virginia, Maryland, or Tennessee, “Fat Ham” resembles Shakespeare’s play without copying it. Gay protagonist Juicy, “soft in body and temperament,” has the demeanor of a thoughtful philosopher like Hamlet himself.
As in Shakespeare’s play, the uncle — here pig farmer and pit master Rev, a kind of Claudius, appears to be responsible for Papi’s death (in prison, where he was for the killing of a man with very bad breath), yet marries his brother’s wife Tedra — a kind of Gertrude. Innocent Tedra submits that “They did it [marrying the brother’s widow] in the Bible all the time.” Bible buffs may call to mind Tamar’s marriage to Onan after the death of Er in Genesis. Ijames refers to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau as rivals for Isaac’s blessing in seeing Rev as a “supplanter.” Juicy’s cousin and oldest friend Tio — like Horatio — advises about the depth of the cycles of violence, here vengeful violence demanded by the ghost of Papi.
Will Juicy continue the cycles? Studying human resources digitally at the University of Phoenix, he does not come across as the tough heir the ghost of Papi demands. Instead, he soliloquizes like Hamlet about the majesty of man and does test Rev’s conscience. At the same time, decorated Marine Larry — a kind of Laertes but less confrontational than his Shakespearean counterpart — wants a “softer” life and full connection with Juicy. Larry’s spunky sister Opal — a reminder of Ophelia — has interests that put her in conflict with their platitude-rich mother Rabby, who resembles Polonius. At one point, Tio coyly suggests that he is supposed to survive — as Horatio did in “Hamlet.”
Spoilers aside, expect closing surprises. With a combination of rich humor and subtextual seriousness, Ijames provides a denouement quite different from Shakespeare’s but one that fully celebrates individual freedom — particularly for the younger characters.
Director Stevie Walker-Webb skillfully balances the play’s singular humor and smartly understated seriousness with strong individual performances and sharp ensemble moments. Marshall W. Mabry IV captures Juicy’s inner strength and developing outer tenacity. Ebony Marshall-Oliver has all of Tedra’s maternal caring and snappy personal style as a newlywed. James T. Alfred proves equally convincing as the persistent ghost — who even emerges at the grill — and arrogant, self-serving Rev. Amar Atkins moves very convincingly from seeming stoicism to full emotional expression. Lau’Rie Roach catches Tio’s lively insights — notably in wonderfully amusing dialogue about gingerbread men. Victoria Omoregie finds Opal’s sweetness and cockiness, and Thomika Marie Bridwell has Rabby’s parental pushiness. High marks go to Luciana Stecconi’s very well-detailed yard and back of house and Celeste Jennings’ colorfully eclectic costumes.
Near the end of the play, Juicy observes that Larry looks like himself. Ultimately, the play’s truthfulness about human connection makes “Fat Ham” a theatrical entrée to savor.
“Fat Ham” runs through Oct. 29 at the Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston. For tickets, call 617-266-0800 or visit huntingtontheatre.org.