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Anne Azzi Davenport
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A reworking of Shakespeare "Hamlet" called "Fat Ham” recently won the Pulitzer Prize in drama. Jeffrey Brown has the story from New York for our arts and culture series, "CANVAS."
As Shakespeare wrote, what a piece of work is a man.
Well, now a man named James Ijames has reworked Shakespeare's "Hamlet." His new play, "Fat Ham," recently won the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Jeffrey Brown has the story from New York, part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
I think my uncle and my father killed.
And now my father wants me to kill my uncle.
Actually, make that North Carolina, where the setting is not Elsinore Castle, but a backyard barbecue.
Juice, guess Rick James' birthday.
The son with a murdered father, not a prince named Hamlet, but a Black, queer, Southern young man called Juicy.
That was deeper than I expected.
And the playwright, not William Shakespeare, but James Ijames.
James Ijames, Playwright:
It is my conversation with Shakespeare. It is me trying to, like, talk to the guy.
To Shakespeare, saying what, for example?
I get to say, see, this was what your story or the story that you discovered and wrote a version of, this is what it can do now.
Shakespeare's story, of course, is "Hamlet."
Kenneth Branagh, Actor:
To be or not to be.
And there is little question it is among history's best-known works, a tragedy of vengeance in which, no spoiler needed, a lot of bodies end up on the floor, including the title characters.
Pretty cool about your mom and uncle.
James Ijames' version, titled "Fat Ham," unfolds rather differently.
It was first presented in streaming video due to the pandemic, produced by the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where Ijames serves as a co-artistic director. The play is now getting its first in person production with a new cast and director at New York's Public Theater, where I met Ijames.
Early drafts are very much beat for beat. I am tracking Hamlet.
I just saw your daddy.
What do you mean?
He was there walking across the yard right there in the middle.
And then you get to the end of "Hamlet," and I go, oh, right, I'm in a backyard, and everybody has to die.
Like, that is literally what happens in the play. So, I had to rethink what my relationship to the ending was, which made me rethink how I wanted to tell the whole story.
This family in the backyard, loud, kind of going at it, loving, hating, all of it together, this is in some sense your family?
Yes, and my community. I was always surrounded by that energy.
And I think it is worthy of the stage. I don't always see it. And so I wanted to bring that to life for people.
You all ready to pray?
You know I am.
It is my attempt to bring the Black South closer to these plays and to Shakespeare's language.
This is the set, but this also feels like home?
Yes, this edifice here with the doors very much looks like the house I grew up in when I was a kid.
Ijames grew up in Bessemer City, North Carolina, which he describes as a close-knit, church-centered community. He did not come out as gay until his 20s. He began writing, though, in his teens, a way, he says, to get often painful feelings out of his head.
He would later go on to act and direct as well.
I have heard a guilty creature sitting at a play…
He loves Shakespeare, and so does his character Juicy. Language from hamlet is mixed into "Fat Ham," as when Juicy addresses the audience directly.
I will have these players play something like the murder of my father before my uncle.
But Ijames also wanted to play with the idea of tragedy itself…
I'm going to become so mean and brutal and awful.
… to ask how he might break out of cycles of vengeance and violence.
Don't do that.
The expectation, particularly for Black storytellers, is that we are going to tell tragedies, that our existence is tragic.
And I don't know that I agree with that. I think that tragedy happens. And we're living through a sea of tragedy right now, on so many different levels. And the thing that has kept me and sustained me through all of that…
You could stand to be more honest.
… is my ability to make other people laugh and for people to make me laugh.
You had to think about that answer? That was there?
You always think you all are more complex than you actually are.
And so "Fat Ham" is funny, very funny, including knowing winks at Shakespeare
The king, my queen, is dead.
You watch too much PBS.
How can one watch too much PBS?
But there is also the threat of violence and a demand that men be ready to take deadly revenge.
You could get hard and mean and cold deadly.
I don't know if I could do that.
Juicy, being a person who is very alive in his softness, very alive in his queerness, in this place that is not welcoming to that.
Not at all.
But I wanted to make him as soft as possible in this world, that he — to show people, like, even in the midst of this really, really cruel and brutal environment, you can hang on to the parts of yourself that make you different, make you unique, make you special.
You're weird, Juicy.
Ijames has his character Opal, think Ophelia, say this directly.
What he thinks is your weakness is going to save you, Juicy.
And that has always been true for me. The things about me that people thought made me weak have been the things that have brought me to this moment. I truly believe that.
It took me a long time to accept my identity. It took me a long time to be confident, period. And so I'm hoping that the play offers people the spark to know that that's the thing that they can just like — they can just turn that on for themselves.
Does theater have that power anymore?
I think it does.
Theater reinforces the truth that we're actually not alone, even though everything keeps telling us that we are.
An end to cycles of tragedy. If "Hamlet" can become a kind of comedy of confidence and survival, then perhaps anything is possible.
Me, myself, I plan on getting into the cannabis industry, open up a little boutique.
And if the Bard himself objects?
He can't say much to me now, which is kind of the great thing about being able to adapt Shakespeare, is that he can't say anything.
You have the last word here.
James Ijames' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Fat Ham," runs through July 3.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Public Theater in New York.
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Jeffrey Brown is the chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS NewsHour.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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