Written by Marita A. McKee (BWS Class of 2023)
Reimagining Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Fat Ham follows Juicy, a young Black queer man, as he grapples with his identity and the rather complicated task of avenging his father’s death (it is a tragedy, after all). And while I was somewhat familiar with the classic masterpiece, seeing this now Tony-nominated work tackle love, pain, joy, and loss – with a heavy dose of well-placed comedic takes – made for a theater experience like no other.
The beauty of contemporary adaptations of classical works is its ability to take complex themes and make them accessible and relevant creating a true sense of connection to our everyday experiences. Even more so, when that intentionality meets a diverse representation of culture, traditions, ideologies, struggles, and the like, it makes for ripe storytelling. Setting this piece against the backdrop of a family cookout with an all-Black, incredibly dynamic cast was home for me. Somewhere between the karaoke tracks, charades game, and smack talk, the story of Hamlet came alive on that stage. Though fictional, these characters felt real; like people I had known for a lifetime. And thus, these moments were merely recreations of nostalgic conversations rather than rehearsed dialogues.
While this play can boast of many things – amazing writing, brilliant performances, impeccable technical design – perhaps most resonating was Fat Ham’s ability to speak about nuanced topics with compassion and relatability. The seamless interweaving of these themes with text from the original work were placed at such pivotal moments in the performance that it was impossible not to be moved. To some extent, each character experienced struggles with their identity. Whether dealing with the effects of secrecy, or the path to acceptance, each person seemed to have this intrinsic determination to dare to dream of a life that was different than what they could presently see. And isn’t that all of us? It’s almost as if there’s this knowing, down on the inside, that we are meant for so much more. That despite the difficulties we may face, including how others may perceive us, we continue to strive towards that hope.
In the Black community, hardly any major celebration occurs without food – birthdays, baby showers, holidays, and even funerals. Therefore, it seemed fitting for the production to host a post-show talkback session with the cast and prominent figures in the food and restaurant industry. The chefs and restauranteurs connected their personal journeys with the characters in the play, and it was inspiring to listen to their stories of overcoming and persevering through adversity. But in the most beautiful of ways, seeing individuals that looked like me, with similar backgrounds to my own, proved that my dreams – both as a playwright and performer – are not only possible but within reach.
Unlike other mediums of art, theater has a way of impacting audiences to change – or, at a minimum, to consider themselves and their perspectives. But more importantly, it gives voice to our sorted experiences which, hopefully, allow us to navigate this world as a truer version of ourselves.
“This above all: to thine own self be true…”
Marita A. McKee is a BWS 2023 Alum. This RL theater trip experience was possible thanks to our partnership with The Harriet Tubman Effect Institute.