FAT HAM + ABANDON: Considering James Ijames’s new and newer work

Jared Chichester and Melanye Finister in ABANDON at Theatre Exile. Photo by Paola Nogueras

James Ijames won the Pulitzer Prize for Fat Ham, which is now running on Broadway; it will arrive at the Wilma Theater in November. No sooner said than won, Fat Ham is now nominated for five Tony awards. His even newer play, Abandon, has just opened at Theatre Exile. 

First things first:

Fat Ham is about Juicy (Marcel Spears), a plump, gay, closeted, serious-minded young Black man, coping with his father’s recent murder and his sexy mother’s o’er-hasty marriage to her violent brother-in-law.  When his father’s ghost turns up at a backyard barbecue—both a funereal and a matrimonial event—demanding revenge, Juicy has a huge problem.

Sound familiar? 

Marcel Spears and Billy Eugene Jones in FAT HAM on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There has been a rash of Shakespeare knock-offs recently, both in fiction and drama: Hamnet, Birnam Woods, Enter, Ghost, & Juliet, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, etc etc etc. Sometimes the debt lends depth, sometimes it’s just a cheat, a way to imply intellectual importance. Neither seems to be the case in Fat Ham, which is an enjoyable revenge comedy built on the armature of Hamlet for reasons that remain unclear to me.

The world premiere of a new play by a Pulitzer winner is a big deal for Theatre Exile, a small, off-the-beaten track theater company. And, I’m sorry to say, Abandon is a disappointment. Well, nobody wins every time. 

The similarities with Fat Ham are obvious:

There are ghosts, there are parents who don’t understand/approve of queerness, there is extreme violence (“I’m a grown man; that’s what we do”); add to the list: Oedipal issues as sons are excessively attached to their mothers, and the assumption that homosexual men are “soft.”

The Exile production is filled with awkward, long, empty scenes in which we watch someone wash a dish in silence. There are several songs sung by people who can’t sing very well.  There is a religious theme that goes nowhere. 

The cast, directed with many implausibilities by Brett Ashley Robinson, provides some lively fight scenes between brothers (Jared Chichester and Carlo Campbell), and Luella (Melanie Finister) gets into the violence act with a baseball bat. Her dead son (Brenson Thomas) who haunts Luella is never allowed to explain why/how he forgave the mother he now calls “the love of my life.”

And no sooner said than done, we are promised yet another play, an even newer one: Media/Medea is Ijames’ riff on the ancient Greek myth, which is coming next week to Bryn Mawr.  Stay tuned.

ABANDON: [Theatre Exile, Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street] April 27—May 21, 2023; theatreexile.org

FAT HAM: [American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY] March 21—June 25, 2023; fathambroadway.com


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