🎭 The Lyin’ King | “Fat Ham” @ Geffen Playhouse

Fat Ham (Geffen)Going into Fat Ham, which we saw last night at the Geffen Playhouse, I didn’t know much. I knew it had been successful during its Broadway run, garnering some Tony nominations. I guess it might be something like Fat Pig, which we had seen many many years ago at the REP. Note: It wasn’t. The reality: Fat Ham wasn’t anything like I expected (other than it was very funny); in fact, if you knew its source material, it wasn’t what that would lead you to expect.

Fat Ham, at the highest level, is loosely based on Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. This is a continuing tradition in the theatre, and it shows the brilliance of Shakespeare in that his work is so readily adaptable to different forms and eras. The title of this writeup is a reference to yet another adaption of Hamlet: Disney’s The Lion King. Malevolent Uncle marries the widow of the King, who the Uncle had killed. Son has to deal with avenging his father, with the help of friends. Similar story beats in Fat Ham.

Fat Ham transposes the story to one about a black family, somewhere in the south, sometime in the near past. The program states that is is North Carolina or Virginia or Maryland or Tennessee, but not Mississippi, Alabama, or Florida. The time is sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, based on dress and hairstyles and such. It is a blue-collar level (but not poor) house, in a rural area, where the family business is a barbeque restaurant run by Pap and Rev, two brothers. Pap went to prison for gutting a customer like a pig, and while in prison, was shafted. It turns out that Rev, Pap’s brother, had arranged the shafting … and not a week after the funeral, Rev married Pap’s widow, Tedra. The play takes place in the backyard of Tedra’s house, where there is to be a celebration of the wedding.

The focus of the story is Juicy, Tedra’s son. After Juicy’s friend Tio sees Pap’s ghost, the ghost comes to Juicy and asks him to avenge his death. Juicy is conflicted. Story beats of the traditional Hamlet story play out in the backyard, as Rev’s friend, Rabby comes to visit with her two children, Larry (who is in the Marines) and Opal. There are both rough and obvious correspondences: Juicy/Hamlet, Rev/Claudius, Tedra/Gertrude, Tio/Horatio, Rabby/Polonius, Larry/Laertes, Opal/Ophelia. But not all of the character beats are the same, especially as the story goes on and the relationships get … shall we say more contemporary.

There are also some key changes in the characters, beyond the obvious transposition from the Court of Denmark to the rural south, with the “Kings” becoming owners of a BBQ Joint. Juicy is a bit of a schlubsy student, attending the University of Phoenix. His friend, Tio, is a stoner addicted to porn. Rabby is a high church lady, her son Larry is on leave from the Marine, and her daughter Opal wants to go to the Marine, although her mom wants her to be a debutant. Relationships are not traditional.

The play clearly breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges the audience and even interacts with them, with characters commenting about “What are you telling those people?”. There are points where Juicy breaks into soliloquy, even going so far as to quote the source Shakespeare. The interplay with Shakespeare is quite interesting. There are jokes expected and unexpected (I particularly like “Aye, there’s the rub” in reference to cooking BBQ — someone has to use that as a restaurant name). There are many of the lines you would expect (yes, there is “What a Piece of Work is Man”, which (if you recall) was in Hair as well). Yet this isn’t Willy’s story, it is Juicy. It ends up in a different place (although the Uncle is still dead). There is magic, and there are ghosts. But there is also glitter and sparkle.

There are also the black family beats. While I was writing this up, the plot of the recent movie American Fiction. One of the central aspects of the story is the question of why stories about black families are successful only if they are ghetto, involve violence, guns, etc. Why don’t stories about middle-class black families sell. Think about that with respect to Fat Ham. Here’s a story about a black family. It involves prison. It involves murder. It involves shanking. It has characteristic black southern language and dress. It has poor people who can’t afford college; people that don’t have the generational wealth to make that a possibility. It has families with generations of killing and prison. The idea of success is getting a career in Human Relations. But the play was successful. What does that say about what the predominantly white theatregoing audiences expect from stories about black families? Is this just proving the point of American Fiction? Contrast it with the story from One of the Good Ones at the Pasadena Playhouse,  which is a successful middle-class hispanic family (questioning what it means to be hispanic). Why is that context for a minority family accepted? It is certainly something to think about—and perhaps the reason we need more playwrights of color so that we can see a broader spectrum of black and minority families.

Theatre is a reflection of ourselves, and successful theatre means seeing our stories on the stage. The timeless story of Hamlet is successful simply because treachery is part of the human experience, as is the desire for revenge and avenging a wrong. Lust fits in there as well. We see that story play out in all sorts of families: be it a pride of lions, or a lyin’ prideful family.

Fat Ham is a very funny play, although not as hysterical as the recent POTUS. The performances are remarkable and strong. It is worth seeing, especially as the Geffen has essentially brought back the Broadway cast. We don’t often get that anymore in Los Angeles (although we used to, as I noted in my Chicago review last week)

I’d particularly like to note the performance of Marcel Spears as Juicy. Most know Spears as the younger, nerdy son on The Neighborhood. His performance as Juicy made me see how good of an actor this young man is. He’s much more than just the comedy chops we see on TV. His performance here brings out a great range, and is well worth seeing.

The set and creative design was interesting. I particularly noticed the prints used to create the house; the transition for the closing scenes was so fast I didn’t even notice it. The… well, I guess you could call it a smoking jacket … used for the ghost was particularly creative, as were the entrances and exits of the ghost. Be prepared for lots of theatrical smoke, if you are sensitive to that. There is also some rough language, violent themes and sexual references. This isn’t a show for kids. Hamlet never was (well, unless you’re Disney).

Fat Ham continues at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through April 28, 2024. Tickets are available through the Geffen Online. Discount tickets may be available though Goldstar TodayTix—yes, I just received email that Goldstar is officially changing its name, and my pandemic-time credit for a cancelled show is moving to TodayTix. I guess I’ll never get my Goldstar EGOT now.

A parking note: Although parking is convenience at the Westwood Medical Plaza next door, and much cheaper than the TJ’s lot a block away, the parking lot is really badly designed. It is never clear where you can park until you are deep in the bowels of the structure; there are no clearly marked handicapped spaces (drop your passenger off in the loading zone before the theatre first, then circle back), and at the end of the show, it takes 20-30 minutes before the line to exit even starts moving. You have been warned. It is worse than the El Centro Garage near the Pantages, and that’s equally poorly designed. You would think, by now, architects would know how to design good underground parking structures. But they don’t.


Cast: Nikki Crawford Tedra; Chris Herbie Holland Tio; Billy Eugene Jones Rev / Pap; Adrianna Mitchell Opal; Marcel Spears Juicy; Benja Kay Thomas Rabby; Matthew Elijah Webb Larry. Understudies: Jasmine Ashanti U/S Opal; Armand Fields U/S Juicy; Ethan Henry U/S Rev/Pap; Jarvis B. Manning Jr. U/S Tio/Larry; April Nixon U/S Tedra / Rabby.

Creative: Written by James Ijames; Original Direction by Saheem Ali; Directed by Sideeq Heard. Produced in association with No Guarantees, Public Theatre Productions & Rashad V. Chambers.

Production: Marcel Spears Assoc Producer; Maruti Evans Scenic Designer; Dominique Fawn Hill Costume Designer; Bradley King Lighting Designer; Mikaal Sulaiman Sound Designer; Skylar Fox Illusions Designer; Earon Chew Nealy Wig, Hair, & Makeup Designer; David H. Parker Assoc. Director; Lisa Kopitsky Fight Director; Chris Herbie Holland Fight Captain; Darrell Grand Moultrie Broadway Choreographer; Abdur-Rahim Jackson Assoc. Choreographer; The Public Theatre & National Black Theatre Originating Producers; Alyssa Escalante Production Stage Manager; Lauren Buangan Asst Stage Manager; Kate Murray CSA Original Casting Director; Phyllis Schuringa CSA Casting Director.

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Administrivia: I am not a professional critic. I’m a cybersecurity professional, a roadgeek who does a highway site and a podcast about California Highways, and someone who loves live performance. I buy all my own tickets, unless explicitly noted otherwise. I do these writeups to share my thoughts on shows with my friends and the community. I encourage you to go to your local theatres and support them (ideally, by purchasing full price tickets, if you can afford to do so). We currently subscribe or have memberships at: Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson TheatreBroadway in Hollywood/Pantages TheatrePasadena PlayhouseGeffen Playhouse (Mini-Subscription); 5-Star Theatricals. We’re looking for the right intimate theatre to subscribe at — it hasn’t been the same since Rep East died (it’s now The Main, and although it does a lot of theatre, it doesn’t have seasons or a resident company), and post-COVID, most 99-seaters aren’t back to doing seasons (or seasons we like). I used to do more detailed writeups; here’s my current approach.

Upcoming ♦ Theatre / ♣ Music / ◊ Other Live Performance – Next 90ish Days (⊕ indicates ticketing is pending):

On the Theatrical Horizon:

Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica has announced their Mainstage 2024 Season, and it includes Bat Boy the Musical running Sept 28 through October 18. We saw Bat Boy back when CSUN did it in 2014; it is a wonderful musical about how a society treats outsiders. I also just learned about a theatre company in Fullerton, Maverick Theater. They are doing Evil Dead: The Musical , which is a hoot if you’ve never seen it (we’ve seen it twice). They also have some interesting other stuff on their season, and we might drive down for Santa Claus Vs The Martians in November.

The Geffen Playhouse just announced their 2024/2025 seasonThe Brothers Size (08.14-09.08.2024); Dragon Lady – Part 1 of the Dragon Cycle (09.04-10.06.2024); Waiting for Godot (11.06-12.15.2024); Noises Off (01.29-03.02.2025); Furlough’s Paradise (04.16-05.18.2025); and The Reservoir (06.18-07.20.2025). Nothing particularly calls out to me. I like Noises Off, but it’s not worth dealing with Westwood Parking to make the trip worthwhile.



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