A Note from the Dramaturg, Adrien-Alice Hansel

James Ijames played Hamlet in a student production in undergrad, as he was beginning to transition into theater-making from choral music. It was bad casting— “I’m by far more aligned with Horatio than I am with Hamlet,” he says—but if he “sort of staggered” through the mercilessly trimmed version of the play, the story and its questions stuck with him. So when he decided he wanted to adapt / talk back to one of Shakespeare’s works, he had a deep existing relationship with Hamlet.

Ijames conceived this adaptation as a collaboration with an existing play rather than a take-down; he describes his project as working “with a Shakespeare play to do a new play…. I wanted to take something that was known as tragic and make it into otherwise.” And as such, he looked at Hamlet’s story of brother-killing-brother and the ways that this crime corrupts the generation below it and created characters—Black, Southern, many of whom are queer—who might take the given circumstances of Shakespeare’s play and react differently.

The translation of Hamlet from moody Norwegian castle to Southern backyard wedding barbeque—and of Hamlet the moody Norwegian philosopher student to Juicy the Black queer human relations student—are just the first of Ijames’s interventions. Ijames has written several plays about characters caught up in intergenerational cycles of violence and trauma. Hamlet offered a clear blueprint for him to investigate these questions with a new lens: “When you inherit a cycle of familial trauma, do you want to continue that?” Ijames asks. “Do you buy into abuse or alcoholism? …When I was looking at Hamlet, I thought, ‘He has a choice of whether to continue what his family has done.’ Hamlet is conflicted about the decision that he makes to seek vengeance. I was like, ‘What if he didn’t?'"

Much of the fun of Ijames’s is in the sly translated gestures from Shakespeare to Fat Ham: the advice-heavy Polonius becomes self-assured church lady Rabby (who has some secrets of her own); ever-true friend Horatio shows up as Juicy’s cousin Tio who opens the play watching pornography and has an eleventh-hour monologue about choosing pleasure that takes a distinctly contemporary form; the play Hamlet stages to confirm his uncle’s guilt becomes a pointed game of charades; two of Hamlet’s best-known soliloquies arrive in surprising contexts. Ijames is quick to point out that there is quite a bit of humor in Hamlet as well, and that as a part of watching his bottom line, Shakespeare was always “trying to write blockbusters…constantly asking the audience to express delight, to engender wonder in the audience.” 

But within this fun—and James as well as Studio hope you find a lot of fun in here—are the seeds of a radical project: “Fat Ham is using the archaic form of the Shakespearean play to offer an audience a space to reconsider what they want their life to look like, giving some people permission to be more themselves,” Ijames says. “It’s using the tragic form, which has all these rules attached to it, to offer people access to liberation…. The play is creating space for joy and transformation…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.”

Adrien-Alice Hansel