Review: ‘Fat Ham’ dishes up Shakespeare’s classic with contemporary flavor

Marshall W. Mabry IV as Juicy and Ebony Marshall-Oliver as his mom, Tedra, in the Alliance Theatre production of "Fat Ham." It runs through May 19 on the Hertz Stage.

Credit: Photo by Greg Mooney

Credit: Photo by Greg Mooney

Marshall W. Mabry IV as Juicy and Ebony Marshall-Oliver as his mom, Tedra, in the Alliance Theatre production of "Fat Ham." It runs through May 19 on the Hertz Stage.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

It’s hard to overstate how many new takes on “Hamlet” there have been. But although Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke and David Tennant all gave it the ol’ college try — with a special nod to Tom Stoppard’s breezy spinoff “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” — no version has ever felt as transfixing and alive as James Ijames’ Pulitzer-winning deconstruction of the material, ”Fat Ham.”

Now proving the play’s the thing at the Alliance Theatre through May 19 and replete with a sizzling cast, Ijames takes Shakespeare’s tragedy and inverts it. He takes the story structure that has seeped into our cultural memory over the last several centuries — the usurping, revenge, meditations on mortality, etc. — and cracks through its ribs to find the soft flesh inside.

And, yes, I’m using some barbecue metaphors here because the story itself has been transplanted to a backyard cookout celebration in North Carolina, following the rushed marriage of our protagonist’s mom, Tedra (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), bringing stellar comedic chops to the party) to his uncle Rev (James T. Alfred), following the death of his father, Pap (Alfred again, pulling strong double-duty in the dual role).

The Hamlet of our story is Juicy, played by Atlanta native Marshall W. Mabry IV, who delivers a precise and lovely performance as a Black, queer young man grappling with a complex kind of grief over the parental figures in his life. Pap built a barbecue dynasty before going to prison for murdering one of his employees — only to get shanked under mysterious circumstances while serving his time. As we soon find out, that death was a coordinated hit planned by his covetous brother, just like in “Hamlet.”

Marshall W. Mabry IV (left, as Juicy) and James T. Alfred, in the dual role of Juicy's father and uncle, in “Fat Ham.”

Credit: Photo by Greg Mooney

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Credit: Photo by Greg Mooney

Juicy is not technically a prince — rather, he’s a student at the University of Phoenix pursuing a degree in human resources — but he is clearly inheriting an empire’s worth of pressure and generational trauma from his family.

As in “Hamlet,” Juicy’s father, Pap, appears early in the play in ghostly form, demanding vengeance. Here, he delightfully emerges from various items in the backyard — including, at one point, the smoker, where the ethereal vapor makes it seem like he’s what’s being cooked on the burner.

But Pap’s visit doesn’t send existential shockwaves through his son so much as it stirs up profoundly conflicted feelings. After all, as a paternal figure, Pap was a tyrant, mocking his son for every element of his identity. When both of your father figures are equally vile, where does that put you?

Of course, maybe this is a good time to share that this play is also extremely funny.

There’s welcome self-awareness throughout, especially over how moody and emo Hamlet has always been as a character. “I can’t help who I am . . . I ponder,” Juicy says at one point. In a series of soliloquies that blend the source material with the updated takes, Juicy is brought in and out of the contemporary storyline via smart lighting and sound design by Xiangfu Xiao and Aubrey Dube.

This allows Mabry as an actor to showcase impressive ability to seamlessly move from perfect iambic pentameter to present-day chitchat.

Later, when the family breaks out the karaoke machine, Juicy (of course) opts for Radiohead’s “Creep” — but what starts as an amusingly on-the-nose choice becomes a heart-stirring slow-burn cry from the soul that soars beyond the Thom Yorke original. The repeated lyrics of the chorus, “I don’t belong here,” just hit differently.

Throughout, we get clever little touches for the theater nerds in the house. “Ah, there’s the rub,” Juicy says with a knowing wink after his uncle goes on about the secret to good barbecue “is in the rub.”

Lau’rie Roach (left, as Tio) and Victoria Omoregie (as Opal) add some drama to the family barbecue menu in "Fat Ham."

Credit: Photo by Greg Mooney

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Credit: Photo by Greg Mooney

But these nods in “Fat Ham” aren’t just injected as some kind of “Family Guy”-style appeal to, “Hey, get it? It’s a thing we know!” Instead, Ijames has unearthed, like poor Yorick, a truer depiction of what it’s like to be contained within these 21st century mortal coils than you might have imagined possible.

Take Opal (Victoria Omoregie), this play’s version of Ophelia, who’s also queer. Here, she’s bursting with poise and confidence, sharing an easy repartee with Juicy that’s fostered from a mutual understanding over how difficult it is to hide who you are from those who are supposed to love you unconditionally.

One more nimble twist is that full-military-uniform-clad Larry (this world’s Laertes), played with tender yearning by David Castillo, has the romantic connection with Juicy here. It’s a nice switch, and it allows us to build toward one of the most transcendent, cathartic endings of a play I’ve ever seen onstage (which, again, no spoilers, but just hold onto your hats, folks).

In a full cast of absolute top-of-their-game performers, I’d be remiss not to shout out Lau’rie Roach as Tio (the translated Horatio), whose boisterous, constantly high persona, seen in the delivery of one lengthy, raunchy monologue in particular, steals the show just about every time he opens his mouth.

The one misstep here was in the Alliance’s decision to stage the play at the much smaller, more squished Hertz Stage, rather than on the theater’s mainstage, where you could have more easily guaranteed that the audience would be able to experience every little detail and movement. Because the Hertz Stage is at the bottom of narrowly sloped stadium seating and the stage isn’t elevated, you won’t catch all the action unless you’re seated in the very front row.

This is a play that deserves the room to breathe and take up space, especially with the dynamic direction from Dawn M. Simmons and Stevie Walker-Webb, which propels each emotional beat to every corner of the venue.

Ultimately, “Fat Ham” is all about radically choosing joy, deciding to thrive and committing to be true to thine own self. It’s also a meditation on the merits of softness in a world that too often favors mean and brittle. As one character asks in a crucial moment, “What would your life be like if you chose pleasure over harm?”


“Fat Ham”

Through May 19. $40-$60. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600.


Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines, including Time, The Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.

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