Black gay men have never had it easy, but the Pulitzer Prize has been receptive to their stories of late. Two years ago the drama prize went to the musical sensation A Strange Loop, now on Broadway. Last year’s winner was The Hot Wing King, set amidst a barbecue competition. This year the honor went to Fat Ham, the story of…a Black gay man and trouble at a family BBQ, with music. And, Shakespeare.
I’m not sure where this trend is going but James Ijames’ short, sharp play is good fun, conveying a serious message or two with disco sass. The broad outline will ring a bell. Somewhere down South Tedra (Nikki Crawford) is about to marry Rev (Billy Eugene Jones), and a backyard celebration is coming together. But everything is in fact coming apart. Tedra is recently widowed–like, very recently, a week before. And Rev is her dead husband’s brother. Dad Pap (also Jones), who was ostensibly killed in prison, appears before his and Tedra’s son Juicy (Marcel Spears) in spectral white to demand that the boy avenge him by slaying Rev. Juicy is skeptical–Pap, who built a BBQ empire, belittled and gay-baited him forever, and was in stir for murdering a fellow whose breath smelled bad. The conflicted Juicy would like to make better choices.
To be or not to be? That’s Hamlet’s problem, and sometimes Juicy’s (Rev isn’t much of a father figure either) but the play wears the tragedy lightly. Secrets are shared, or exposed, by brother and sister Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith), the latter a military man sympathetic to Juicy’s tenderness and self-actualization Their mother Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas) is a handful, whose wisecracks hit Juicy like so many bricks (he’s taking online college courses, which are dismissed as “not real” college.) Putting things into spacy perspective is Juicy’s porn-loving friend Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), who in a lucid moment diagnoses the issue as inherited trauma, “of black men going in and out of prison since the Civil War.” But Tio is the kind of guy who fantasizes about having sex with gingerbread men, so Juicy will have to find his own way out.
Karaoke, and a tough but tender performance of Radiohead’s “Creep,” offer a kind of release, and there are anguished moments of direct address when Juicy lays bare his soul. It’s a spirit of play that most distinguishes the piece, however, a coproduction of the National Black Theatre and the Public that has been skillfully assembled for the stage by director Saheem Ali, after its streaming debut in Philadelphia. The prosaic-seeming set, by Maruti Evans, conceals some nice surprises, via Stacy Derosier’s lighting (the lamps that come on at one point are particularly eye-catching) and Skylar Fox’s illusions, sleights of hand involving Dominique Fawn Hill’s costumes and the outdoor BBQ decor. The entire cast catches the spirit of the enterprise, with much of its impact coming from Spears’ performance. Juicy’s exhausted by all this legacy that’s landed on his shoulders, and yearns for a softer way of living with the ghosts of a bitter past and an uncertain future. As someone once wrote, sort of, to his own self Juicy must be true. The comic beauty of Fat Ham is that everyone gets a taste of what might be, once revenge is taken off the table.