To start this article with the soliloquy reference, or not to start this article with the soliloquy reference, that is the question.
And because I lack total self control, I just did. But I urge you to think about what comes to mind when you think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For starers, THEE aforementioned soliloquy. The ghost, the haunting familial betrayal. No matter how “different” the thousands of productions of Hamlet may seem, we have yet to see a production that truly is different – in feel, tone, structure, the list goes on…until James Ijames’ Fat Ham.
Fat Ham (which won the Pulitzer Prize in drama this year) completely reimagines a Hamlet, without putting the play or complex characters in a box. The writing is ever so poignant and approach to adaptation is modern, fresh, queer, and Black and almost Freudian in certain ways – as the show feels so familiar, but so eerily and distinctly different from the original text material from centuries ago. One of the themes that becomes clear throughout the 95 minute show is that nothing is concrete and everything “kind of” still a work in progress – and that’s totally okay!
Set at a summer barbecue in current day, this co-production between The Public Theatre and the National Black Theatre (Directed by Saheem Ali, of Merry Wives) goes here, there, and everywhere while exploring themes of queerness, bravery, and questioning societal expectations. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Marcel Spears, who plays “Juicy”, our Hamlet-esque character.
TK: We have seen so many productions attempt a “new and fresh” approach to contemporary Shakespeare, but Fat Ham feels SO different for a multitude of reasons – off the top of my head, the Black and queer stories, the layered motifs and themes, but also as different as James Ijames Pulitzer Prize winning work may be, it feels true to Shakespeare’s original work and that’s remarkable. Can you tell us a bit about your approach for mastering that fine line?
MS: I have always had a unique relationship and approach to Shakespeare mostly because when I was first introduced to the work I felt so outside of it; As a young Black actor I always felt like Shakespeare was so inaccessible, I didn’t see very many actors that looked like me doing the work locally, it wasn’t until I started formal acting training that I was able to realize that Shakespeare is full of big messy emotions, and dirty jokes, it’s just as raw and ugly and wonderfully relatable as the world we live in today. It’s for everybody. I respect the structure of the language, but I dive into the work like I do anything else; with and abundance of curiosity and empathy.
TK: Juicy is such a complex, yet relatable character. I was rooting for Juicy throughout the play, even when the unthinkable happens – my heart sank, but I still was on Juicy’s journey and that could not have happened without your remarkable ability to breathe life into the character, flaws and all. Do you feel that you are similar and/or different to Juicy in certain ways – if so, how?
MS: I always put a little of myself into the characters I play, I try to find some common threads to ground the performance. Juicy loves his mom, he’s a southern boy etc. The work of an actor early in the process is to find your characters “why” and I think that was the trickiest part for me. Juicy in someways is absolutely fearless, but in the play he kept making choices that were so different from what Marcel would do. Finding JUICY’S “why” was a lot of fun for me.
TK: And a follow up to that, what is one major takeaway that you have learned about yourself from playing Juicy? Juicy has softened me up a little.
MS: I grew up in New Orleans, it’s a beautiful city, but it’s a tough city. I was always encouraged as a young man to be strong. Because I’m Black, because I’m poor, because I am me; I was to expect the world will treat me coldly and to meet that reality with unwavering force. As much as I have matured I still held on to pieces of that upbringing. Juicy helped to shatter most of that and caused me to reflect and redefine, what can be considered strength.
TK: What was your first reaction to reading the play for the first time? Specifically the scene between Juicy & Larry. (I don’t want to spoil so I’m not getting into great detail)
MS: When I first read this play I just knew I wanted to be apart of it. I hadn’t seen anything like it, I knew it was special. Specifically that scene between Juicy and Larry which is the scene I auditioned with is one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever seen or read in all of tv/film/ and theater. I think that’s all I can say without giving it away but it’s beautiful.
TK: You all look like you’re having a BLAST on that stage, but you really trust each other to go there with these characters – can you tell me a bit about your dynamic with your castmates? Also, how do you not crack up during the karaoke scenes or Tio’s gingerbread man monologue at the end?
MS: This cast has gotten very close very quickly, in theater actors learn to make fast friends, to build chemistry as a company for the purpose of telling a story, but I think early on our director Saheem Ali was so adamant about creating a space for deep and vulnerable work it also created a very tight bond. We genuinely enjoy each others company, and we have fun together, you can see that on stage. And the truth is Chris’ as Tio isn’t the scene that is most likely to crack everyone up, that charge goes to Benja playing Rabby, she breaks everyone, I think she enjoys it.
TK: What is the main thing you would like audiences to take away from Fat Ham?
MS: I think the thing I want audiences to walk away from this play with is a sense that Joy is contagious, even in the most difficult circumstances joy is a a radical act of love and kindness. Joy is revolutionary, it is a gift, and it can change your life and the lives of people around you, like it literally changes the world of this play.
We loved sitting down with Marcel as much as we loved watching Marcel light up the stage. With brilliant performances from Nikki Crawford, Chris Herbie Holland, Billy Eugene Jones, Calvin Leon Smith, Adriana Michell, and Benja Kay Thomas – run, don’t walk to catch this hysterical and relatable show.
P.S. – trust me, you will not be disappointed with the musical performances, but let those be a surprise.
Fat Ham is playing at The Public Theatre through July 31, 2022. Learn more about the full cast, creative team, and tickets by visiting https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2122/fat-ham/