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Common Thread Shows Wavering Loyalty to The Bard in ‘Fat Ham’

Company a collaborative effort between Davidson College and NC A&T theatre departments

The cast of Common Thread Theatre Collective's 'Fat Ham' production
The cast of Common Thread Theatre Collective’s ‘Fat Ham’ production (left to right): Mya Brown, Daylen Jones, Shabaza Vaird, Jeremiah Dennis, Brandon Johnson, Kaia Brown, La’ Tonya Wiley. (Photo by Chris Record)

Thanks to the inclusion of fat-shaming in our officially accepted roster of politically correct taboos, we have all evolved far beyond the days of Fats Domino, Fats Waller, and good ol’ Fatty Arbuckle. So you may wonder how playwright James Ijames manages to avoid explicitly calling the hero of his Fat Ham, for which Ijames won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize, by that unholy titular adjective.

Well, Ijames’s latter-day Hamlet, Juicy, is never called that word by any of the modern-day nobles who gather in his backyard to celebrate his mom Tedra’s marriage to Uncle Rev at a good old-fashioned barbecue.

As you’ll see in the Common Thread Theatre Collective production, which wrapped its Davidson run last weekend and will pick up in Greensboro’s Paul Robeson Theatre from June 27-30, Rev is roasting a piglet on his barbecue spit, providing Juicy with extra cover. Even in his script, Ijames describes his leading man as “thicc, 20-21, Black. He’s beautiful. He is lonely. He is smart. A kind of Hamlet.”

If you remember Hamlet, then you’ll understand that Mom marrying his uncle a week after Dad’s death rubs Juicy the wrong way. Now Juicy’s dad wasn’t as worthy a dude as Prince Hamlet’s; Pap was murdered in prison, where he was serving a sentence for … murder. Boogie, the victim, apparently had bad breath. That was enough.

We begin pondering the differences between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ijames’s Juicy as soon as Pap returns as a ghost — not on the battlements of the royal castle in Elsinore to Hamlet and Horatio but to Juicy and his cousin Tio (“A kind of Horatio”) from underneath the back porch, likely somewhere up in Caldwell County — with a Casper the Ghost bedsheet over his head before we see Pap’s orange prison suit.

Of course, if you’re not torn and ambivalent, you’re not really doing Hamlet, so Ijames would allow his neo-tragedy to occur in Virginia or Tennessee, across the border, or even Maryland. But not Alabama, Mississippi or Florida. Different Southern vibe. And although Tio is watching porn on his cellphone when we first see him, Juicy’s world sits vaguely between the ‘60s and ‘80s “aesthetically.”

King Hamlet and Pap are also alike in getting briefed on the pertinent details as they transition into ghostliness. That’s how Pap knows that Brother Rev ordered the hit, though he may have been on his guard. Shakespeare’s king needed the info more, since he was offed in his sleep.

Do Tio and Juicy believe in ghosts — particularly when Ijames has Pap “doing ghost shit” in broad daylight instead of past midnight? Apparently, they do, for Tio divines with the same perceptiveness of Horatio that Pap’s ghost is silent towards him because he wishes to speak only with his son.

Ambivalence goes beyond Shakespeare when it comes to the key father-son relationship, for Pap abused both Juicy and his mom when he could lay his hands on them. In his current incorporeal state, abusing Juicy is no longer possible, so he can taunt Dad’s powerlessness all he wants over what is obliquely a fat-shaming issue, for Pap tries to get his son to drop his candy bar.

We likely join Juicy in his gleeful emancipation as he stokes Pap’s anger. He can still yell like hell, that’s for sure.

Onstage at Barber Theatre.
Shabaza Vaird and Brandon Johnson onstage at Barber Theatre. (Photo by Chris Record)

Even though Pap is calling for him to avenge his murder on a man who disgusts and bullies him, Juicy pushes back. Dad’s track record not only includes cruel abuse but also the tendency to show up on the front doorstep at odd intervals when he needs to ask a favor. Offing your brother is a pretty big ask, particularly when you yourself have served jail time for murder.

And Pap just might have a credibility problem. Even after Rev bullies him and punches him in the gut, Juicy wavers. The ocean of difference between King Hamlet and King Claudius is shrunk to less than a millimeter, for Ijames has decreed that the same actor will portray both Pap and Rev.

As it was in Elsinore, so it must be in humble Caldwell County; the play’s the thing to catch Rev’s conscience. Since Juicy doesn’t have the budget to hire a theatre troupe to perform a play — in fact, Mom just pulled his tuition money from the online university where he’s enrolled for a Human Resources degree — Juicy will play a game of charades with the newlyweds and their wedding guests specially concocted to grab Rev’s attention.

Naturally, the guests at Tedra and Rev’s backyard wedding reception are all “kind of” Hamlet characters, namely Tio and the revamped Polonius family. The two sibs, Ophelia and Laertes, are now Opal and Larry, their sententious dad is usurped by Rabby, a sententious mom.

There are also episodes that further parallel Shakespeare, including one where Juicy must refrain in all good conscience from killing Rev while he’s saying grace, a soliloquy or five here and a nod to Yorick there. Other episodes curiously twist the original, most notably Juicy’s strife with Larry; it’s not about Opal at all.

While Ijames dodges and weaves in landing his punches and playing his games, he drops savvy references throughout his dialogue offering sharp reminders that he knows what he’s about. Telling Juicy how to cope with his new situation, Tio references Oedipus before we’ve even met the folks.

From left: Shabaza Vaird, Kaia Brown, Daylen Jones, and La’ Tonya Wiley in Common Thread Theatre Collective’s ‘Fat Ham’ production. (Photo by Chris Record)

Not only does this reference aptly describe Juicy’s feelings toward his dear mum and daddy, it subtly evokes the model that Aristotle uses in Poetics while laying out his famed doctrine of the unities in tragic drama.

Yes, there are episodes in Fat Ham, not scenes. Ijames succeeds in reinventing his Hamlet by compressing it into a single day of action in seemingly real time, fulfilling the grand Aristotelian formula. The Bard, in typically five-act form, stretched his tragedy over at least five months, maybe nine.

Ijames even works in three costume changes, two of them startling and one of them absolutely unbelievable. He will bend reality his way if he wants.

Each of the roles Ijames has lampooned is a plum, especially for Shabaza Vaird as Juicy and Brandon Johnson as Pap/Rev. Teaming with costume designer Gregory J. Horton, director Xulee Vanecia J makes this Juicy more gender-fluid than the playwright probably imagined, with Vaird amply going with the flow.

There’s a wonderful tenderness to him, yet none of the defiance is missing from Vaird’s portrayal of a man who insists on wearing black to his mom’s wedding.

Johnson certainly feasts on both brothers’ vileness, not without some comical moments, and works well with fight choreographer Garrad Alex Taylor to spice up the action and ratchet up the dramatic tension. Both of him have the look of ex-cons, but Rev also has the swagger, complacency, and greed of a true snake.

Completing the Oedipal trio, Mya Brown sparkles and effervesces as Tedra, flirting or subtly pouting, depending on whether she gets her way, with enough high energy for Juicy to wonder whether she’s actually happy.

In its third summer, Common Thread is an innovative and inspiring partnership between the theatre departments at Davidson College and North Carolina A&T University. Since it embraces both students and faculty in its productions, the company is perfectly constructed to deliver on a script like Fat Ham, which could easily be tainted by seasoned actors bending over backwards to simulate confused teens.

That doesn’t happen in this all-Black marvel, and it’s heartening that Thread’s best effort to date will also run up in Greensboro for the first time on the NCA&T campus. It could be a painful to experience an effortful attempt at what Kaia Michelle and Jeremiah Dennis accomplish so naturally in projecting the awkwardness and insecurity of Rabby’s spawn, Opal and Larry.

Michelle is bold yet apprehensive in proclaiming Opal’s sexual orientation while Dennis is somehow proud and sheepish in his military uniform. That will miraculously change.

Meanwhile, let’s not omit the exploits of La’ Tonya Wiley as Rabby. Unlike Polonius, she isn’t channeling Cicero or Marcus Aurelius. Good lord, it’s all about Jesus.

Certainly all involved were consumed with making the epigraph on the front page of the program come hilariously to life. “What a piece of work is a man!” As the N-word taunts at the top of the play faded from memory, Fat Ham delighted me — and concerned me — more and more.

Why was Ijames doing what he was doing, and why must all these people be Black? What should the differences between Shakespeare’s noble Danes and Ijames’s common folk be saying to us?

I’m not sure I would have come up with any conjecture during the long ride home if my wife Sue and I hadn’t seen the superb US Premiere of Dark Noon at Spoleto Festival two weeks earlier. The Danish fix+foxy company uses a mostly Black cast — South African actors pointedly putting on “white face” makeup — to tell the mighty tale of western migration and the white man’s racist conquest of our native population.

Read more: Down at Spoleto Festival USA, the Vibe Is Shifting

Ah, but this time it was from the viewpoint of the victims. Among many other revelations, including our shameless greed for land and gold, the show helped me understand the intimate connection between white America’s racism, their sense of superiority and entitlement, and their worship of the gun.

Such a sardonic view of whites doesn’t fully surface in Fat Ham. But please pay special attention from the moment Juicy looks at us and then at all who are left standing on the Barber Theatre stage, saying, “You know what they think ‘bout to happen right?” A few seconds later, he hammers it home: “We tragic.”

Can these contemporary North Carolinians truly commit to that?

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