Saturday, September 30, 2023

Review of Fat Ham, a play by James Ijames


Fat Ham

Review of Fat Ham, a play by James Ijames

At Calderwood Pavilion of the Huntington Theater through October 29, 2023

By Andy Hoffman

Fat Ham, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for a new play, appears in an ebullient production at the Calderwood Pavilion, a joint effort of the Huntington Theatre, Alliance Stage, the Front Porch Arts Collaborative. The play, modeled on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, takes place during a barbecue in the backyard of a nondescript house someplace in the middle South. The party celebrates the wedding of Tedra and Rev, the brother of Tedra’s recently killed husband Pap. Pap dies violently in prison, serving a sentence for murdering someone in the family’s restaurant. As in Hamlet, Pap’s ghost appears to his son, Juicy – as one might describe a fatty ham roast – to claim that Rev directed the murder, perhaps to get Tedra to marry him. Pap bids Juicy to avenge his murder by killing Rev, an act that appeals to Juicy’s emotions but runs counter to his sweet and peaceful nature. The playwright and the theater deserve gigantic praise for undertaking a play the tries to see this well-known story through different eyes. This all Black cast and production embraces this extraordinary challenge with enthusiasm, though sometimes it feels as though Fat Ham attempts more than it achieves. The fact that I come to the theater as a cis white man of an older generation might make me less than the perfect audience. I had high expectations for this production, but left the theater disappointed and unmoved.

The actors connect with the audience more through song and dance than their characters, who seem thinly drawn. The young people wrestle with their gender and sexual identities. Juicy seems unable to express his feelings about his kindness, so much in contrast with his father and uncle. Larry comes out, but only to Juicy, and Larry’s sister Opal (read Ophelia) tells her mother that she prefers women, while Tio’s pansexuality becomes a running joke through the play, but the action of the play itself doesn’t account for either the identities or the expressions of them. Vocal performances by Marshall W. Mabry IV as Juicy and Ebony Marshall-Oliver as Tedra become the most memorable moments of Fat Ham, even though they do little to advance the story or reveal the characters. Still, there’s an undeniable energy about the performance and the presentation of peculiar family dynamics at work in this particular African-American clan.

I left the Calderwood feeling more disappointed than elated. Because of the Pulitzer Prize, I went in with extremely high expectations, but left entertained while still wondering why Fat Ham had captured so many accolades. James Ijames isn’t the first playwright to build a modern play on the back of a Shakespeare classic. Tom Stoppard created a brilliant sideways view of Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which the Huntington staged a few seasons ago. Perhaps comparison disadvantages both plays, but when two celebrated new plays choose to spin off of Hamlet, they invite comparison. While Stoppard’s comedic drama takes an existential look at Shakespearean themes, Ijames dramatic comedy plays more like a series of workshop mashups. The play’s minor characters, such as Juicy’s cousin Tio (Hamlet’s Horatio) and friend Larry (Hamlet’s Laertes) – have comic roles that seemed to me extraneous to the play itself. Aside from Juicy’s occasional soliloquies, lifted directly from Shakespeare, the connection to the original seems largely allusive and elusive. I can’t second-guess the Pulitzer Prize committee, so I can simply try to find a justification for their decision. Any theater-goer will admire the wild humor and imagination woven through Fat Ham, which climaxes in Tio’s marijuana-fueled monologue about video games, snowballs, and the deep satisfaction of sexual congress with a gingerbread man. Taking a standard of the literary canon and remaking it into an expression of racial and sexual identity deserves serious accolades.

This production extracts laughter and moans of recognition on both these points. When Larry embraces his gender fluidity, the audience is with him, and when Tedra explains to Juicy why she has taken up with her dead husband’s brother, we feel the limited choices she believes she has as a woman of color. These moments, however, are largely disconnected from the play of which they are part. As a member of the audience, it is difficult to assess whether the play or its direction misses the mark. Both James Ijames, the playwright, and Stevie Walker-Webb, the director, have received repeated honors for their work in the theater. I may have missed something, since this production left me wanting something more or different. The Huntington’s Fat Ham provides a good evening of entertainment, and it will satisfy if you go with that expectation. I had attended expecting more, and left The Calderwood Pavilion let down.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Red Letter Poem #178

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner





Red Letter Poem #178






Pandemic Days



Cloud of white blossoms

fills my front window:

curbside ornamental pear.


Out back, my cherry graft:

cascading umbra of tendrils

tied with delicate white bows.


Next door the magnolia

offers magenta-edged petals

by the fistful,


and every neighborhood street’s

festooned: apple blossoms,

apples blossoms, apple blossoms.


But grand prize

belongs to the purple plum

next block over


more precious

for the brevity of its flowering.

It takes my breath away!


Meanwhile, behind closed doors,

human life           

its fragility:


flowering of

the sick, bedridden,

the dying, intubated,


the dead.



                   ––Mark Pawlak  




Autumn––the calendar’s made it official––even though, where I live, it’s felt like the season changed a while back: brisk winds, lashing rains, apples toppling from our Northern Spy––but interspersed as well with those precious short-sleeve windows-open kind of Indian summer days.  To be honest, when Mark Pawlak first sent me “Pandemic Days”, I imagined publishing it as a sort of memorial to those dark times past––the devastating power of pandemic now more of a receding memory, even as we’re mindful of the toll taken these last three years, on the living as well as the dead.  Yet recently I’ve found myself feeling a surprising sense of safety: visiting friends and family, dining indoors at restaurants, even attending crowded concerts––any sense of concern, a muffled whisper in the background of my mind.  I was cognizant of the risk––but, vaccinated and reasonably healthy, proceeded as if the worst was behind us.


And perhaps it is––but the Boston Globe reports the infection rate is ticking upward, and Massachusetts currently has nearly 2800 confirmed Covid cases with 29 deaths this past week.  So this morning I am turning from headlines to poetry in search of a different sort of data.  Blissfully, it’s still spring inside Mark’s poem, and his is the sort of attentive mind that savors the abundant sensory data cascading toward us at every living moment.  As his eye takes careful note of alluring images, his ear records the musical intensities of his own thought process; listen to the rhythmic thrust of a phrase like “curbside ornamental pear”––so mundane and yet so utterly beautiful.  But, as the tercets descend, the poet ups the aural intensity: that branch on his cherry tree, is a “cascading umbra of tendrils/tied with delicate white bows.”  We find ourselves standing beneath, and engulfed by, this lush beauty––but (and this realization dawns on us quietly) also standing with the poet, with all the other eyes who might glimpse this scene.  Perhaps it even takes our breath away (as it does Mark’s)––but ‘breathlessness’ (Covid reminded us) is a two-edged sword.  “Meanwhile”––says the poet, abruptly shifting gears with a fresh stanza––“behind closed doors. . .”.  And, of course, those doors swing open in our imaginations, and we find ourselves abiding as well with those suffering souls for whom this moment, this season is the most tenuous.


This is one of the reasons I value Mark’s poetry: it’s not distanced from us by its poetic stance; often written in galloping colloquial cadences, it assumes the sort of welcoming attitude that Walt Whitman first recommended for American poets.  The author of nine previous volumes of poetry––including Reconnaissance: New and Selected poems & Poetic Journals (from Hanging Loose Press)––Mark is about to publish a new collection entitled Away Away where “Pandemic Days” will appear.  This piece offers us a fresh vantage point, a shift of perspective: at times, the eye’s lens does a slow pan; at others, it zooms in for a dramatic close-up; but always (and perhaps most significantly) illuminated with a sense of the communal––that we are not alone in what we are seeing.  And so there it is, those undeniable cycles to which all the living are subject: those flowering trees. . .and then the ripening fruit. . .and then the seeds, fallen, entering the earth. . .and perhaps, even in grief, the thought of next year’s flowering.




The Red Letters 3.0


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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Poets Miriam Levine, Martha Collins, and Kevin Gallagher to read Sept 27 Hastings Room series

  Wednesday 27 September 2023 ~ 7pm Christ Church ~ 0 Garden Street ~ Cambridge 


Miriam Levine is the winner of the 2023 Laura Boss Narrative Poetry Award, and the author of Saving Daylight, her fifth collection of poetry. An earlier collection, The Dark Opens, was chosen by Mark Doty for the Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares. Levine, a winner of a Pushcart Prize, is a fellow of the NEA and a grantee of the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. Her next book of poetry will be published in spring 2024. She lives in Florida and New Hampshire. 

Martha Collins’ eleventh collection of poetry Casualty Reports, a finalist for the 2023 NEPC Sheila Motton Book Prize, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in the fall of 2022. Her 2019 book, Because What Else Could I Do, won the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award. Earlier books, which have won many awards, include three focusing on race and racism (Admit One: An American Scrapbook, White Papers, Blue Front). She founded the UMass Boston creative writing program, and later taught at Oberlin College. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 


Kevin Gallagher is a poet, publisher, and political economist living in greater Boston with his wife Kelly, children Theo and Estelle, and Rexroth the family German Shephard.  His newest books are And Yet It Moves, and The Wild Goose, both published in 2022.  He edits spoKe, a Boston-area annual of poetry and poetics.  Gallagher works as a professor of global development policy at Boston University. 




with the first decade Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading