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One 'Fat Ham,' hold the patriarchy — new play premieres at Pittsburgh's City Theatre

One person holds a camera phone for a selfie while the other holds a balloon.
Kristi jan Hoover
City Theatre
Jordan Williams (left) and Brandon Foxworth star in "Fat Ham," at City Theatre.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

For a stage play that premiered as a filmed production during the pandemic, “Fat Ham” has really made a name for itself. This largely comedic retelling of “Hamlet” through a Black, queer, contemporary lens went on to become a hit off-Broadway and on. It earned national press coverage and a 2022 Pulitzer Prize for playwright James Ijames.

By the time City Theatre was readying the play’s Pittsburgh premiere, this spring, director Monteze Freeland had already seen two productions, on Broadway and in Ijames’ hometown of Philadelphia.

The show is a co-production with TheatreSquared, of Fayetteville, Ark., a partnership that allowed City to afford the large cast. (The whole show moves South next month.) But Freeland, a City Theatre co-artistic director, saw ways the troupe could make “Fat Ham” its own dish. One was geographical.

The play opens with a young man named Juicy getting a surprise visit from the ghost of his BBQ-restaurateur father, who commands him to avenge his recent murder at the hands of Juicy’s uncle (who, naturally, has just married Juicy’s mom). But if the setting is hardly Elsinore Castle, neither is it specified. Freeland said Ijames meant the play to be set somewhere in the upper South — North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland.

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Freeland chose the latter, his own home state, and imagined the set’s ’70s-style ranch-house exterior located in Glen Burnie, a suburban area south of Baltimore.

That was just one way for Freeland and his actors to inhabit the material. The touches are all fairly subtle. The cast, led by Detroit-based Brandon Foxworth as Hamlet, speak with a bit of a Baltimore accent. And when Opal (Elexa Lindsay Hanner) shows up for the backyard cookout the play revolves around, she’s carrying a bag of crabs – de rigueur in Maryland.

There’s also Tio’s (Jordan Williams) Baltimore Orioles cap. “They wouldn’t let me get away with putting a Ravens flag on the stage,” said Freeland, with a laugh.

Another resonance between Freeland and Juicy is right in the text: When Juicy says aloud he’s living out “Hamlet,” his mother, Tedra (Maria Becoates-Bey), teases him for watching too much PBS.

“It’s one of the funniest, realest lines, because I was accused of the same thing as a kid,” said Freeland, a rising star who’s also a writer and performer on local stages.

And while “Fat Ham” largely distills “Hamlet” into a play about filial obligations — “Amazing what fathers think they’re owed by their sons,” says one character — it’s also about queerness. Freeland said Juicy’s queerness echoes Hamlet’s refusal of Ophelia’s affections; it might also remind local theatergoers of Quantum Theatre’s 2023 “Hamlet,” which gave the Prince of Denmark a nonbinary spin.

There’s a generational feel to that emphasis. Questions of sexual identity, Freeland said, loom larger than ever in young people’s relationships with their families. And while all four older characters in “Fat Ham” are putatively hetero, all five younger characters engage with queerness in one way or another.

All that might make “Fat Ham” sound somber or ponderous. In fact, it’s rather raucous, with lots of music, and karaoke and stand up-comedy twists on Shakespearean monologues. Ijames turns Shakespeare’s play about the toxicity of patriarchal expectations — which ends with pretty much everyone dead — into one about overturning those expectations.

Freeland said City Theatre picked “Fat Ham” because “[i]t exuded joy, which is not always the medium in which we work at City Theatre.” The company’s seasons consist entirely of local premieres, and these newer plays are often topical or otherwise edgy. But “Fat Ham,” Freeland said, “leaned into joy despite the circumstances.”

“Fat Ham” continues at City Theatre through Sun., March 24.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: