A Soft Place To Land: James Ijames' Fat Ham
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history, conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners, and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.
Leticia: On May 9th, 2022, playwright James Ijames won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Fat Ham. Loosely based on William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the play follows a Black queer Southern college student as he navigates being haunted literally and figuratively by his father's death at a family cookout. Fat Ham received its world premiere via a digital production with the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where Ijames serves as co-artistic director.
Jordan: We had the distinct pleasure of seeing the New York premiere of Fat Ham in a [co]-production between the Public Theater and the National Black Theatre this past May. In this episode, we discuss this wild and whimsical production in a conversation about the nuance of Black queer experience, the adaptation of Shakespearean drama, and the continued need for sharp, incisive, and insurgent comedies.
Leticia: Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine, Episode 5. We are back on these mics to talk about another theatre production that we seen. We are talking about the recent winner, Pulitzer Prize winner, Fat Ham by James Ijames. We had the distinct pleasure to see this production at the Public Theater going in pretty blind. Didn't really know what to expect. Know it was riffing off of Hamlet, but I will have to say I was pleasantly surprised with the production. I'm really looking forward to diving deeper into what the play is doing, what the production did really well, and just have a sort of conversation about Black queerness. The first time perhaps we've talked about it on the podcast.
Jordan: Yeah, I think this is the first time we've dedicated an episode specifically to think about that in all its nuance and complexity, which is so strange considering our general being, but I'm excited to dive deep into this play. Yeah, like Leticia said, we'd already been planning to go to New York and see a couple of productions. And once we heard the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize, and then that it was going to have its world premiere at the Public, we were like, “Oh my goodness, this is like serendipity. We have to go see this play,” which neither of us knew anything about.
So, it's always lovely to... I haven't had the experience in a while where I saw something that I knew absolutely nothing about. So, it was really, really great to really experience this the way that most theatregoers are experiencing theatre, which is just like knowing absolutely nothing about it. And just walking in and seeing whatever is thrown at us. And what was thrown at us was a lot, in a really great way. In a really great way.
Leticia: Yes, it was a lot. I think let's just jump straight into it. So, the production we've seen, like I mentioned, was at the Public Theater, directed by Saheem Ali. James Ijames has a long, long, long bio. He's a playwright, director, educator, been produced by many, many places, theatres. I don't want to run down the list. He is also a Morehouse College graduate, and he received his MFA in acting from Temple University in Philly.
He is an associate professor of theatre at Villanova University and a co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater, also in Philly. He wears a lot of hats. When does he have time to write all these plays? Because he is a very, very prolific playwright, and I actually have never encountered any of his work until Fat Ham.
Jordan: Yeah, I had never read or gotten a chance to see any productions of his work prior to this, but I had heard of him. His name has definitely been circulating around because he's such a prolific playwright as you have noted. He's had a couple of plays in the last few years have some productions in DC.
So, plays like Moon Man Walk, which was directed by my friend Angelisa, and Kill Move Paradise, which I believe was at Rep Stage a couple of seasons ago. And so, I've always been so upset that I missed his productions that have been here in the DC area, but I'm really, really glad that we got to see this one, which was an absolute delight. Not to... Spoiler alert.
Leticia: Oh, yeah, spoiler. We're going to be talking about details, so if you want to read it or you want to see the production without getting some sort of finer details of the show then you might want to skip this episode. But yeah, James Ijames really, really impressed by Fat Ham, and specifically, the way that he tricks out Shakespeare without being it... I don't know if adaptation would be the right word to describe this particular play. To me, it's like something else. Perhaps maybe more like a remix of Hamlet might be more appropriate than an adaptation of it. What do you think about how we categorize it as it relates to Shakespeare itself?
Jordan: I was thinking signifying. I was thinking signifying. I would say that this is signifying of Shakespeare. And for those of you who aren't familiar with that concept, it's a concept that was coined by Henry Louis Gates but has existed within Black cultural production for some time. But basically, signifying is about the sampling, about the remixing, about the...
I wouldn't say it's necessarily derivative, but it's taking something preexisting and putting a twist onto it and making a doubled meaning of it as well. I don't know if you have a better definition, Leticia, but that's kind of how I see signifying.
Leticia: Oh, yeah, definitely, definitely. So, I think that signifying would probably actually be appropriate especially when we think about how Blackness is so entangled and intertwined into understanding the lifeblood of this family, of this production, of this play. I think signifying is probably, yeah, the most appropriate term to talk about how it relates to Shakespeare.
And I even felt like... I did know that it was riffing off Hamlet. The playbill that was being handed out at The Public, it does mention Shakespeare. So, if you read the program note before you watch a show—which all students listening, read the playbill, it will give you so much information—it tells us that it's riffing off of Hamlet, but I feel like if you just went in raw, you didn't read anything, and you watched Fat Ham, you wouldn't necessarily know that it was riffing off Hamlet at all. Because it is also so distinctly itself. It has a distinct identity as a play that stand on its own without necessarily being like, “Oh, that's where Shakespeare lands or this is where Shakespeare shows up within the actual production of the show.”
Jordan: Yeah, I mean I think that we were both like... When we heard like, “Oh, it's riffing off of an adaptation,” which we already said not really an adaptation of Hamlet. We were like, “Okay, let's see. Let's see.” We've talked about Shakespeare and Blackness on this podcast before, so check out that episode that we did in our second season with Renea Brown.
But this was really not Shakespeare. I mean it kind of was, and I feel like it was a “the girls that get it, get it” moment. But it was really something all and of its own. I mean I think it used some of the narrative conventions of Hamlet like the father's death and the ghost, and the feud with the uncle, and the uncle marrying the mother. But other than that, it's really something all its own. Honestly, if they didn't even tell me it was Hamlet, I would not have associated that immediately in my mind.
Leticia: The play back and forth with what does it mean for the Public to do a riff off of Shakespeare when they're so known for their iconic Shakespeare in the Park production. And specifically, the last few years, we've really seen this leaning into making Shakespeare Black or Shakespeare in Black, right?
So, you have the Stacey Abrams imprint on the last one. What show was that? Which one... Was it As You Like It? What was it? Which one did they do?
Jordan: Oh, man. It was with Danielle Brooks, directed by Kenny Leon.
Leticia: Yes, I can't remember—
Jordan: We talked about it on this podcast.
Leticia: We're terrible. We can't even remember-
Jordan: Oh, oh, oh. Oh, wow. I cannot remember.
Leticia: Was it Twelfth Night?
Jordan: No, it was not Twelfth Night.
Leticia: Okay. Well, y'all listen to the episode if you want to know what we're talking about. But I know that this year they're doing Merry Wives of Windsor, right?
Jordan: I believe that was last year, actually.
Leticia: Okay, that was last year. Well, anyway-
Jordan: Yeah, we don't know anything.
Leticia: We literally know... we don't know anything. But my point still stands in the sense that specifically at the Public Theater and their Shakespeare in the Park productions, there has been a conscious decision I've seen with their last few productions to really make Shakespeare Black, right? You got it?
Jordan: Much Ado. It was Much Ado About Nothing.
Leticia: Yeah, it's Much Ado About Nothing, the one with Danielle Brooks in it. But there is this sort of way that the Public has been a part of trying to sort of infuse sort of a Blackness and perhaps maybe sort of modern understanding, iterations, performances of Blackness within Shakespeare productions.
So, it's interesting to see a play that is not just a Shakespeare script but we're going to make it Black, right? And there is a note from the playwright that is included in the playbill, which says... It's called the “is and ain'ts.” Quote:
“This ain't Shakespeare. Don't get me wrong. I love Shakespeare, this just ain't him. This ain't a tragedy. While I appreciate and weep through tragedies on a daily basis, both imagined and real, this play is not that.
Having said that, here is what I hope to offer and create with you. This is a play about families stuck in a few cycles that their youngest members discover they can break. In real-time, we see family cycles dissolve to make room for something else to grow. This play is offering tenderness next to softness as a practice of living.
This play is celebrating Blackness that is traditional and weird and lonely and happy and grieving and honest and frightened and brave and sexy and churchified and liberated and poetic.”
And I'll just leave it there. There's a little bit more there, but I think the way that he formulates how he himself is relating to Shakespeare and creating a conscious decision even though he knows Hamlet plays a part in what we see on stage. There's moments that we'll talk about where there's direct addresses.
I really love his articulation of how the core of this play is about Blackness and Black families, right? And this sort of turning the tragedy of Hamlet on its head, which we can also talk about with the ending of the show.
Jordan: Yeah, and I also wanted to point out, to me, what immediately came to mind in reading this particular note is the use of is and ain't and the kind of Black queer genealogy that has. So, if folks are familiar with Black is... Black Ain't... by Marlon Riggs, right? And that, thinking about Blackness and gender and queerness and the nuances and complexities of intra-racial community within that. I think that James Ijames is riffing off of that in a really particularly interesting way, right? To think about this is and ain't Shakespeare, like this is and ain't Blackness, this is and ain't Black queerness. So, that really stuck out to me in reading that note.
Leticia: Yeah, definitely so. Let's talk a bit more about Juicy, who is our main character. One, love the name of Juicy. A character name.
Jordan: Love it. Do y'all remember... What is it? The PJs?
Leticia: The PJs, the projects. Yeah, I remember The PJs. “Juicy—”
Jordan: Yes, it had a character named Juicy. Yes, “Hey, Mr. Super.” Yes.
Leticia: Such a great name. So, Juicy is the main character, the Hamlet of the play, so to speak. And he's approached by his father's ghost who is basically like, “We from the hood. We come from hard men, right? All the men in our family have killed someone, and your uncle killed me.” Who, interestingly enough, is double casted, right? And I believe that's a convention of the script itself that the father and the uncle are played by the same actor.
And then throughout the play is Juicy himself trying to really fight with, “Do I enact this revenge, right? Can I kill my uncle?” Who is quite harsh to him and mean to him throughout the entire play. Specifically, I love those moments where Juicy directly addresses us using this sort of convention of Shakespeare direct address to the audience, where he sort of slips into actual Shakespeare lines from Hamlet.
And the way that this particular actor approached it was very comical and very like, “Okay, now I'm doing the Shakespeare thing for the audience.” In a way that the other dialogue was more naturalized within the play, that I thought was a really interesting dynamic to sort of think about like, “Oh, this is the moment we're all supposed to know that this is a Shakespeare line.”
And every time the actor was so good at delivering that line that it got a laugh every moment. And even some claps sometimes because people were like, “Ah, I see how you weaved that in so nicely into this particular moment.”
Jordan: Yeah, and I also... The actor who played Juicy who was portrayed by Marcel Spears, one, fantastic performances from everybody. I just want to point that out right here, but I think in particular with Juicy's character, like you said, the weaving in and out of the narrative and in and out of emotional moments, comedic moments, to moments of joy and pain.
I mean this actor, this is a very athletic role in terms of emotional athleticism. You have to go so high and so low so quickly, and this actor was so skilled at being able to deliver everything with aplomb. The jokes landed, but also the poignant moments really landed. And so, I was just riveted the entire time.
I also think that I was really... in terms of the double casting of Rev and Pap. So, Rev being the uncle, and then Pap being Juicy's father, who was played by Billy Eugene Jones. One, Billy Eugene Jones, amazing. I mean he played both of those roles amazingly and I loved...
What I also loved too is that they weren't so different, you know what I mean? I mean they were different, I felt like I was watching two different people because that's how good he was, but what I loved is the convention of that they weren't so different. I think that's something that happens particularly—and I'm not a Shakespearean scholar, so Shakespeare girls, I really am not trying to tussle—but within Hamlet, there's an idolization that comes with Hamlet's memory of his father, right? And the kind of resentment that breeds with his uncle. And here because we actually get to see head-on Juicy's father, they have a very complicated relationship, right? They have a very complex relationship, and his father is trying to make him into somebody that he doesn't want to necessarily be, right?
He thinks he's going to kill the uncle, right? He thinks he's going to do all these things. Like you said, the men in their family, that's what they do, and I think it was such a poignant exploration of masculinity and intergenerational patriarchy, right? Being pushed on to people. And literally seeing the journey of Juicy pushing back against that I think was really quite lovely. I mean you don't really get to see the journey of that, right? And I thought it was really, really beautiful to watch.
Leticia: Yeah, and I think the double casting lends itself to that. Specifically, that role, which is the only role that's double casted, is it really leans into the identifying family trauma, right? These cycles, right? By having it be portrayed by the same actors, there's a way that it resonates even more, right?
How you said that they're very similar is actually, I think, right on the money and a deliberate convention by both Ijames and Ali in his direction to make sure that we don't see this family trauma and this cycle as individualized, right? So, it's not just his dad who's terrible to him, but it's also his uncle, right? Specifically, the men in his life, right?
And we can talk about his mother, Tedra, who is a whole nother level of mess. But there's also these moments that I love when at one moment she comes out in the play, in the script, and she says, “Juicy, what'd you tell them? They're already judging me. They already think they have me figured out,” right?
So, it's not just Juicy who direct addresses the audience, but there's these moments, and there's not a lot of them, where the other characters sort of break that fourth wall and they're directly addressing us. And putting some doubt in the audience's mind about Juicy's perspective or at least trying to muddy it up a bit that I thought was really effective and interesting, right?
And this idea of secrecy, specifically, sometimes that can happen in all families, but specifically, from my own sort of experience, sort of Black families of like we need to keep our mess, our mess, in our circles, in our hell. But how does that actually foster healing? How does that break cycles if this level of secrecy is maintained and kept? That I thought was also really effectively done.
Jordan: Yeah, I agree, specifically about Tedra. When you see the production, she is this glamorous woman and very sexy. I mean the costuming was so beautifully done by Dominique Fawn Hill, and her outfits are highlighting all her curves. She's like this... When you meet her at least, you think that she's just this probably young mother who's still trying to hang on to that sense of youth, and we get so much more about that.
So, when we're talking about intergenerational trauma, I think one of the more beautiful moments was to see how much Tedra really loved Juicy, and that was just such an amazing thing to see. I mean she is an African American mother in the South, so I thought James Ijames was really good about portraying that sense of, “Okay, what you said was wrong, but you got the spirit?”
When she's like, “So, are you gay or something?” Or whatever it is she said, but there was a true acceptance of Juicy and an acceptance of who he is. And throughout the play, she is there for him in really tangible ways, right? And he also doesn't want to leave her because he knows that his uncle is a piece of garbage.
So, they, I think, really had a tender relationship that wasn't always like, “Oh, let me give you a hug and tell you how much I love you.” But it was more like, “Okay, who wouldn't want my baby, Juicy. Who wouldn't...” Right? I don't know, she had so much more going for her that I think that you would expect initially upon meeting her character.
And I thought that the direction, the portrayal by Nikki Crawford in that role, and the scripting of that character really lent itself to some more emotional complexity than you would have expected upon her entrance into the story.
Leticia: I absolutely agree with that, and I agree in that I love that character. Like you said, it's so clear that she loves her son, right? And she will protect him as best as she can being a Black woman who has just been widowed, but now remarried to someone else in the family, right?
So, she's also sort of navigating what does it mean to be under the system of patriarchy, right? In a very abusive, sometimes hostile patriarchy and trying to navigate that space. I think Ijames really captures that really, really well.
So, Tedra, a character that I was like, “Oh, she going to get on my nerves,” I sympathized, and again, there were moments where I was like, “Shouldn't have said that.” But at the end of the day, it was always about the love and the care that she had for her son, which I really appreciated.
So, let's jump into talking about Black queerness, which is such a big, big part of this play and this production. How do you, Jordan, see Black queerness showing up within this play?
Jordan: Yeah, I think that, like you said, it's all about that, right? And I see Black queerness showing up in two very interesting ways. I think let's talk about Juicy and then we'll get into other characters. With Juicy, I like that he was this brooding person. I was like, “I relate to this cynical, skeptical, pessimistic character so much.”
And I think his wit, his sharpness, how everyone was discomfited by his presence, but also, can appreciate that he's super smart, was really, really, really amazing. He was antagonized a lot through the play for his sexuality, specifically from the men. And it's interesting because though we understand that he's queer, we don't necessarily...
I don't know how to explain it. We never get the sense of like, “Oh, he is specifically gay, or he is specifically this,” right? It's like this exploration of what everyone is putting on to him versus what we actually see from him when he's able to express himself in those moments. In particular with Larry, right?
I say that not to sort of discount that he is queer. He's a queer character. I'm not saying that he's not. It's just interesting to me because we get so much chatter before we even see him express any romantic interest in anyone in a play of his uncle speculating things, his dad saying things, right? His mother saying things, and until we actually see Juicy himself express himself, we are just left kind of confronting other people's... What they're pushing onto him and what they expect a Black queer person to be and express, right? I don't know.
Leticia: Yeah, definitely so, and I think that we... Juicy is comfortable in his sexuality, right? I don't think there's any moment where he's like, “Oh, I'm not...” Larry is still working some things out, but Juicy specifically I think is... There's a level of comfort in who he is and knowing what he's about, right? He knows who he is at its core. It's everyone else that's trying to sort of rip him apart from who he wants to be and who he actually is throughout the play.
I'll also say, on the note of queerness, that we see the generational divide within the characters, right? So, we have Tedra, we have Rev and Pap, and we have Rabby. Rabby? I don't remember how they pronounce that character's name in the play.
Jordan: I think it's Rabby.
Leticia: Rabby, where they're not necessarily open to sort of queerness and like, “Oh, yeah, you're queer? Good. You're good with us.” In the way that Tio, Opal, Larry, right? It's more of a fact of life, right? We see a generational divide. They don't beat up—well, there is a moment in the play where something happens to Juicy—for his queerness, right?
Leticia: Tio, which is very this sort of, I would say, hyper-masculine comedic relief of the show, the clown of the show. We meet him when he's talking about thinking about if he should enter the sexual entertainment industry, and if he would be good at it, to the story about a gingerbread later on in the play. Him and Juicy have a really loving, thoughtful relationship, and you wouldn't necessarily think that these two characters would necessarily have a bond in that way.
But I think Ijames really erupts this notion of generational understandings, acceptance of queerness, right? Where queerness for the younger folks in this actual play is a fact of life. It's just who Juicy is and other characters in the play where the older generation is a bit more skeptical. Because they are tied to these systems such as, like you said, patriarchy, heterosexual family in a way that really impacts how they treat the other people. Specifically, the other younger members of the family.
Jordan: Yeah, yeah. I agree, I agree, and I think that... Let's talk about Larry a little bit. So, we get Larry who he enters, and he is in the military, so he's in uniform for a majority of the play. When he walks in, he sees Juicy, and Juicy's like, “What's up?” And he's like, “What's up?”
He's like, “Oh, why are you wearing your uniform?” And Larry's like, “I thought you would think I looked cool in it,” or something like that. And automatically we're like, “Ah, okay, okay, okay.”
Leticia: Automatically, we're like, “Gay.”
Jordan: Absolutely, right?
Leticia: It takes one to know one.
Jordan: Okay. So, then they don't get a ton of interaction until it's them left on stage and all of a sudden, we get this moment where Larry just breaks down all of his walls, right? He is like, “I want to be soft. I want to kiss you. I want to lay my head in your lap.” All of these different things, and it's like, “Now, hold on.”
But also, it is a really beautiful moment because you see the weight that Larry has had to experience. So, Larry, in the play, his mother is very churchy. She walks in in literally Sunday's... like a hat, the full suit. I'm like, “I know this woman. That's my aunt.” And his sister is Opal who is... We'll get to Opal in a minute.
Larry is very much like the stoic, quiet, very much traditional masculinity if you can even call it that. Performing a sense of traditional masculinity or an acceptable form of masculinity, which like through the military and non-emotional. And then we get this moment where it's between him and Juicy and it was just so beautiful. It made me all tingly inside because also, I love romantic comedies, so I'm just like, “Yes, and now kiss.” But I think that, in particular, that moment had me thinking about the complex way that we see him deal with queerness, which kind of leads into that later moment that happens. I don't know if you had more you wanted to add about—
Leticia: Yeah, I think this idea of sort of softness, right? We only get that angle or that perspective of who Larry is because Juicy invites that sort of softness out of him, right? Where he feels like he can be vulnerable in that way, and that's largely in part because I think Juicy is so sure of who he is, right?
Even as people, like I said, continuously try to beat it out of him, right? In a way that Larry has leaned into like, “Well, I don't want to be antagonized in the way that Juicy is, so I'm going to sort of perform,” like you said, “this sort of traditional masculinity in order for sort of a safety net,” right?
So, when he sees Juicy, he finds a soft place to land, and that landing is not necessarily smooth, right? I don't want to sort of spoil—
Jordan: It was giving training pilot.
Leticia: Yeah, I don't want to spoil the kindness of the play, but there is a moment where we see all that frustration come out. But specifically, also there is a moment at the end of the play, the sort of final moment right before the curtain call that bleeds into the curtain call where we actually see sort of this queerness explode. And explosion is the right way to describe it where it turns into this dance number. We're invited to dance with the cast, in these—
Jordan: And did.
Leticia: —and did, and did. In these sort of subtle hints of everyone on stage, even the older generation participating and having subtle changes into their costume to be more sort of glamorous or lean into sort of a queer aesthetic is really punctured in a way that I think really is quite brilliant but quite interesting when we think about this conversation around queerness and specifically Blackness and what conversations are happening, intra-communally around queerness.
Jordan: Yeah, and what I love too is that Juicy's perspective is really challenged throughout the play, right? And so, I love that James Ijames doesn't just, “Oh, he's the main character. He can do no wrong. Everything that he knows is correct. His perspective is the most correct perspective.” And I think in Juicy's confrontations with Tedra, in his confrontations with Larry, in his confrontations with Opal, which we'll get to, right? I think that Juicy gets his perspective challenged, and us as viewers also get challenged alongside him. That was just so refreshing because oftentimes when you have this main character, they can be very Pollyanna and everything that they do is great.
But it was nice to see like, no, he can be wrong, and even his perspectives on queerness can be wrong, right? And I guess we won't spoil it, but I think that in that moment with Larry when we really see him get challenged in a real tangible way, I think it adds a new layer to how we expect Black queer people to perform and understand their sexuality. Even like you said intra-communally, I even think it's intracommunal within Black queer community too, right?
Leticia: Yeah, definitely so. Let's shift to another queer character in the play, Opal. And specifically, we often have a lot of conversations around like, well, where are the Black queer femme and/or—
Leticia:. —women characters in Black theatre, right? Where is that often explored? At the end of the episode, we'll give you some sort of recommendations about that. But we have a lot of conversation about is sometimes this conversation about Black queerness really masculinized, right? Is it so far-leaning that we're actually missing a solid piece of Black queer women and femmes part of this conversation? So, Opal is queer, right? She blurts it out in this moment of the play, and—
Jordan: “I like girls.”
Leticia: “I like girls,” right? She's in this dress that she's uncomfortable in. I was like, “Ooh, flashbacks.” Uncomfortable in, doesn't want to be wearing, but her momma made her wear it. She's still got her Chuck Taylor's on her feet, right? She's very uncomfortable—
Jordan: And the hoodie.
Leticia: Yeah, in her hoodie over it, right? Not matching, but whatever. She going to have the hoodie and the Chucks on with this dress. So, I was curious. We had some sort of offline conversations around Opal's character and her depiction and how she's relating to this larger conversation about queerness.
Jordan: Yeah, like you said, we are taking this kind of Black feminist perspective to Black queer experience and thinking about how have Black lesbians, Black bisexual women, Black queer women, femme folks, Black trans women, how have they been or not been represented within Black theatre spaces? And I think that this play, to its credit, does think about this in an intersectional perspective with the inclusion of Opal, which is supposed to be a riffing on Ophelia from Hamlet. And Opal is definitely a way more nuanced and complex character than Ophelia for those who are familiar with Hamlet. Absolutely, yes.
But I think where I bring in my own critique of Opal's character is in the way her queerness is represented. I think that... I don't know, I guess it was an alienating or distancing experience watching this beautifully nuanced and complex relationship and exploration play out with Juicy's character and with Larry, right? And seeing how both of them wrestle and are firm and confident, but are not within their queerness.
And Opal's just kind of like, “I like girls,” and that's the extent that we understand about her queerness. And even like you were talking about this discomfort in her dress and maybe trying to masc it up with some sneakers and a hoodie. Maybe this is just me, but not once did I ever feel like this person that I was watching was uncomfortable in that dress.
And I think that it makes me wonder about how we understand how women, people who are not men literally perform within... How their bodies are within their gender presentations, right? And this is not to say I didn't enjoy the performances. I thought it was great, and I was riveted the entire time. I just wonder about... I'm not sure that I believed necessarily that I was watching someone who was uncomfortable in that space.
Also, Opal had this weird murder obsessions. She definitely... Representation for the alt Black girls. Okay, I get that, but also, I don't know in some ways it felt stereotypical to be like, “Oh, you're a queer woman, so you're interested in things that are traditionally masc like guns.” I don't know. I don't know, Leticia, how do you feel?
Leticia: Yeah, I guess I appreciated Opal's presence, right? As sort of a Black queer person or Black queer woman specifically within the family, right? That she's there, that she has her own sort of way of being in the world and that it's... But I feel similarly in that I wish there was a bit more of her own interrogation.
Even if she's very comfortable with being queer, perhaps some more complexity around how she presents, right? Or shows up that queerness. I'm assuming because of her comments about the dresses and other people's comments about her wearing a dress that she is someone who perhaps wears masculine clothes and/or gender non-conforming clothes, right?
That's my assumption and I don't know if that's the intention necessarily, but I was interested in maybe that being a bigger part of understanding her characters and complexity. And we've had conversation as someone who dresses masculine in my appearance and my gender performance, around the space of if queer women who dress masculine are still women, right? Where do they fit within these larger conversations around femme-ness? Around womanhood, right?
Because they dress a certain way, are they distanced from that? And I would have loved to perhaps see that sort of conversation within the play a bit more. Perhaps this is also me just putting on my own working through things. Not necessarily working things, but just something that I've thought about for a bit of thinking about [as a] masculine-of-center queer woman, right?
Is there a softness that they're allowed to have, I guess? In the same way that Larry finds a softness with Juicy, when was Opal in this play able to find a softness, right? She had to be soft the entire production. And again, like I said I appreciate that she is even there because a lot of times she wouldn't even be included in the play. But that was something I was curious about and interested in the play exploring a bit more.
Jordan: Yeah, she's on ten the entire time quite frankly, right? When we met her, she's on ten the entire time. I mean she has a fascination with knives, she's very funny. This actress was extremely funny, comedic timing on point, loved it. But I agree with you about the softness. I think that that's something that the conversations around butchness or studness or masculinity within non-cis men, women, femmes present is that there is this assumed hardness that, oh, because you are presenting in a masculine way, that there is a way that you're also trying to be tough, right?
And so, I too would want to see a little bit more exploration in a character like Opal around when is she afforded softness and not this kind of extreme rebellion to the way that people try to feminize her, right? And that she's like, “I could go to the military and shoot people,” she says, right? But more so that, “I want acceptance. I want love from my mother. I want my mother to see me as who I am, not in a dress. In whatever I want to wear, but that I'm also a person,” and it's not just this kind of...
Even at the end when you talked about the curtain call, right? They transform into this dance party. Even within that dance party, people change costumes, right? But the character of Opal still stays in the dress. She still is in her dress at that moment, and I wondered if that could have been an opportunity to change her appearance even more, right?
I mean Larry gets to change his appearance, all the other characters change their appearance, but we've seen her be uncomfortable and express discomfort. And other people express discomfort with her discomfort the entire time, and she never gets a reprieve.
Leticia: Yeah, it's funny that you say that because I think about when you said that, I was like, “Oh, yeah, when I was wearing dresses or forced to wear dresses.” Not even necessarily forced. My family really didn't force me like that, but I was like, “Ugh, I have to do this performance thing.” I was like I would put basketball shorts quick up under any dress I was wearing. What if she would have pulled out like, okay, basketball shorts. Tucked up the dress in the basketball shorts, right? I think you're right in identifying that, right? It's like maybe there is a way that the production could have signaled to her also being able to perform her gender and wear what she wants in that moment.
Before we get out of here, let's talk about the ending of the actual show. So, we know that Hamlet is a tragedy. Ijames says, “This is not a tragedy. This is in fact a comedy,” right? And I think we see this inversion of a tragedy to a comedy at the end where, spoiler alert, the uncle dies at the cookout. He chokes on some sort of food, and he won't let Juicy save him or perform the Heimlich. So, he just ends up dying because homophobia.
He ends up doing this whole exaggerated death onto the table, the cookout table, and then at one point, Juicy goes into this monologue and he's like, “We don't have to do this, y'all.” And like, “Okay.” And then literally the cast starts cleaning up the set picking up all the food off the ground. And then they tell the actor who plays Rev, Billy Eugene Jones, “Get up, help us.” He's like, “Oh, okay.” He was like, they were like, in the end like, “You're being extra,” right?
So, it's another moment the fourth wall is broken. But it becomes really this sort of funny moment that is supposed to be very tragic. They're all supposed to die in Hamlet essentially, right? Everyone dies, that's the tragedy of it all. But there's a way that Ijames really flips that on its head, right?
And I think it's really potent for Black folks to sort of deny that sort of death drive. To deny the ending of Hamlet to be like, “Oh, yeah, we're all going to die or we're all going to have this sort of tragic ending.” To be like, “No, we're just actually not going to play the game anymore. We're not going to sort of lean into these narratives. We're actually going to create a new ending.” A very comedic funny ending, but something different that I really, really, really loved that moment.
Jordan: Yeah, I totally agree. I mean we're having this really intense conversation over the last few years about how Black people are represented within the theatre, right? It's either all tragedy or it's totally toothless, right? And I think that Fat Ham does that really great balance of thinking about the pain, but also the party, right?
I don't know, I agree with you that the ending with its subversion of Juicy just being like, “You know what? Actually, we don't need to make this a tragedy. Let's just go forth and be merry.” And all the problems are not solved, right? It's not like this utopic ending. The uncle's probably still a terrible person. Mom is still married to this terrible person.
It even opens up the possibility of something else. I just think that the ending not being so clear cut and then just devolving into this party, I think it opens up the potential for imagination in a way that it's not neatly tied up as to all the fates of the characters. We don't know that they all die, or we don't know that they all live. It's just like there's a potential for all of it to happen. We don't know.
Maybe Juicy does still go after Rev after the play ends or maybe Opal does join the military or maybe Larry and Juicy do or don't get together. We don't know, but what we do know is that for that moment, they are subverting the possibility of us being spectators to that spectacle or whatever that might be. I think it was a really great and smart theatrical way of doing that moment.
Leticia: No, definitely. Overall, really loved this production and this play. I'm actually really excited for when it gets published so I can actually really dive into sort of the details and the nitty-grittiness of the script. And teach it, and definitely teach it.
I'm excited to explore more of Ijames's work and just really see what else he has cooking. I know that he has a world premiere next year at the Public Theater for a new show, so I'm excited to see that. Hopefully, fingers crossed I can get up there and just continue to support his work. So, Jordan, let's go onto our reading list. What do we got for the good folks?
Jordan: Before we get into the formal sort of texts, I also wanted to point you all, because we are dramaturgs, we have to point out our dramaturgy. The National Black Theatre curated a dramaturgical exhibit for Fat Ham specifically, and it's called BeLonging: Reimagining the Family Tree. This includes photo essays of Black queer life, statistics around queer life in the south, Black queerness, so much wonderful information.
I highly, highly recommend you all checking out that dramaturgical exhibit, and we'll make sure to link that in our transcript for you all to explore. It's an amazing teaching tool and also gives you a lot more context for some of the things that happen within the play. So, I wanted to point that out. Now, without further ado, let's get into our reading list.
Again, we want to highlight James Ijames's other work. Specifically plays like Moon Man Walk, Kill Move Paradise, and The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington. Please check out his other work and continue to cite and teach and program his plays all across the country.
And then we have some other playwrights that we wanted to point you all towards. We like to highlight the work of Robert O'Hara, specifically his play Bootycandy, which I also saw a really great production of that recently. And also, Donja Love's work, specifically his play Sugar in My Wounds. So, check out those.
And for those of you who are like, where are the women? Where are the non-cis men? We got you. We wanted to highlight plays by Christina Anderson, specifically her play How to Catch Creation. And also, by Aziza Barnes and their play BLKS. Please, check out those plays. Please, read, teach, and cite them.
And then as for some critical material to go alongside your contextualization of what we talked about in this episode as well as any further work on Fat Ham we have Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit by Marlon Bailey. “‘Quare’ Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother” by E. Patrick Johnson.
And then finally, one of my personal favorite anthologies, Black Queer Studies: A Critical Reader, which is edited by E. Patrick Johnson, and Mae G. Henderson, and also features an article by our mentor Faedra Chatard Carpenter on Insurrection: Holding History called “Que(e)rying History.” Please check out that reader and let us know what you think about all of these recommendations.
Leticia: Great, check them out. Like Jordan said, let us know what you think. If you have any other recommendations, drop us a line, post it on Twitter where we retweet you. But this has been another fantastic conversation with you, Jordan. So glad that we got to see the play together and that we were able to sort of talk about it. I really enjoyed it. Really enjoyed seeing it and really enjoyed this production.
This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We're your hosts Leticia Ridley—
Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we discuss Black feminism in theatre and performance. You definitely won't want to miss this. In the meantime, if you're looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter @dolorrainepod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.
Leticia: The Daughters of Lorraine Podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcast” and subscribe to receive new episodes.
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