Fat Ham Notes

Dramaturgy Fellow Series with Lexi Silva.

James Ijames’ Fat Ham proves that family drama never goes out of style. Using the setting of a backyard barbeque, the playwright emphasizes that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is just that: a family drama. Or as many scholars of theatre and literature might contend, THE family drama. Fat Ham, however, reimagines a timeless tale of revenge, deceit, justice and moral conflict on its own terms. Ijames has created a new work that conjures and transforms characters from Hamlet with a meat smoker and a karaoke machine.

Originally produced in a digital format at Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later making its Off-Broadway debut at The Public Theatre in 2022, Fat Ham is a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that centers Black, queer voices in the American South–and more specifically, North Carolina. Fat Ham earned Ijames the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama and since the play’s Broadway debut in March 2023, has been a popular pick for the 2024 season across the American regional theater circuit and it isn’t hard to see why. Fat Ham is an exuberant exploration of Black queer joy that both explodes and embraces one of Shakespeare’s most well-know works.

Helming this production are two extraordinary guest artists, Director Jade King Carroll and Production Dramaturg TJ Young who are exploring how Ijames examines femininity and masculinity, the playwright’s contemporary riff on Shakespearean conventions (like direct address, which I’m using right now), and the intersectional identities of the characters. Programming this play at PlayMakers is fitting considering the playwrights’ Carolina origins. A North Carolina native, Ijames stages the play at a barbeque in a small town reminiscent of his hometown, Bessemer. In the playwrights’ notes, Ijames writes that the play takes place in “A house in North Carolina. Could also be Virginia, or Maryland or Tennessee. It is not Mississippi, or Alabama or Florida. That’s a different thing all together,” going on to note that “The American south, to me, exists in a kind of liminal space between the past and the present with an aspirational relationship to the future that is contingent on your history living in the south.” (Fat Ham, “Settings”). Fat Ham is concerned with southern futures, and the play’s ties to a classical work parallel Ijames’ observations about the south and its relationship to time and history.

In the space between now and then and later, Fat Ham at PlayMakers is rooted in a greater mission to share Carolina stories. Ijames creates characters who call back to Shakespeare’s, but who most importantly affirm beautiful, strong, persistent, complicated and contemporary Black, queer characters. Within the vastness of what Ijames identifies as liminal space, a call to the present is unmistakable. Fat Ham proves that southern stories–Carolina stories–are in the making and worth celebrating (maybe even at a barbeque!)