‘Fat Ham,’ a Pulitzer-Winning Riff on ‘Hamlet,’ Is Broadway-Bound
“Fat Ham,” a comedic and contemporary riff on “Hamlet” set in a backyard in the American South, will transfer to Broadway next spring, one year after winning the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
The play, by James Ijames, is about a family that, like the royal family in Shakespeare’s story, centers on a lonely young college student unsettled by his mother’s decision to marry her dead husband’s brother. But in this version, Ijames seeks to use comedy and his own plot twists to challenge the cycle of violence. (Also, in this version, the family is Black, and the young man is gay.)
The Pulitzer board described “Fat Ham” as “a funny, poignant play that deftly transposes ‘Hamlet’ to a family barbecue in the American South to grapple with questions of identity, kinship, responsibility and honesty.”
The play had an initial production online, at the height of the pandemic, filmed by the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where Ijames is one of three artistic directors. Jesse Green, the chief theater critic for The New York Times, called the show “hilarious yet profound” and said “it is the rare takeoff that actually takes off — and then flies in its own smart direction.”
The play then had a run earlier this year at the Public Theater in New York, co-produced by the National Black Theater. Maya Phillips, a critic-at-large for The Times, also praised the work, writing, “For all that Ijames dismantles in Shakespeare’s original text, he builds it back up into something that’s more — more tragic but also more joyous, more comedic, more political, more contemporary.”
The Broadway production will feature the same cast as at the Public, directed by Saheem Ali, who is an associate artistic director at the Public, and starring Marcel Spears as the Hamlet figure, Juicy. The production is scheduled to begin previews March 21 and to open April 12 at the American Airlines Theater.
“I feel really proud, and excited that it’s going to reach a larger audience,” Ijames said in an interview. “This play is for people who are looking for a new path, people who are trying to figure out how to talk to their family about difficult things, queer people who want to see their reflection, Black people who want to see their reflection, people who love Shakespeare and folks who have never seen a Shakespeare play. It’s for everyone.”
Ijames said he has made some minor changes to the script for Broadway, but the more significant changes will be to the staging, as it shifts from an amphitheater-like setup at the Public to the more traditional proscenium theater at the American Airlines. Ali said he would seek to preserve the show’s sense of a communal gathering, as well as its elements of supernatural magic, as it moves to the larger venue.
The show will be the first National Black Theater production to transfer to Broadway, and only the third play to transfer to Broadway from any Black theater, according to a news release.
The show will also be the first produced by Public Theater Productions, which is a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Public Theater. Under that structure, the Public could make money if “Fat Ham” turns a profit, but the nonprofit has no liability if the show loses money, and no donor funds are involved. A similar financing structure has in the past been used by the Manhattan Theater Club, another prominent New York nonprofit.
Also producing the show are Rashad V. Chambers, a talent manager who has previous producing credits on a number of Broadway shows, including “Topdog/Underdog,” and No Guarantees, which is the production company led by Christine Schwarzman, an intellectual-property lawyer who has also been actively investing in Broadway for several years. Although the American Airlines Theater is operated by the nonprofit Roundabout Theater Company, “Fat Ham” is a commercial production; Roundabout will offer the show to its subscribers, but is not among the show’s producers.
One unusual bit of trivia: “Fat Ham” will be the sixth Pulitzer Prize-winning play to open on Broadway this season, following “Cost of Living,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Topdog/Underdog” and “Between Riverside and Crazy.” (Additionally, two Pulitzer-winning musicals that opened during previous seasons are currently running on Broadway: “Hamilton” and “A Strange Loop.”)