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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

February 8, 2024 Issue
PART 3 (February 6, 2023)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


James Ijames' Fat Ham at PlayMakers Rep Gives
Shakespeare's Hamlet a New and Colorful Twist

Thirty years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I regularly bought season tickets to PlayMakers Repertory Company, the professional-theater-in-residence at UNC. Every season featured a traditional Shakespeare production, which -- truth be told -- could get a little old. Well, things have changed. PlayMakers has featured a Shakespearean production this season, but one with a whole new and colorful twist.

Fat Ham, playing Tuesday-Sunday in the Paul Green Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 18th, is the most recent play by James Ijames' (pronounced "times" without the "t") that is based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. But rather than focusing on an outdated Danish royal family, Fat Ham centers on a contemporary Black family at a cookout in none other than North Carolina.

Though the play follows the Shakespearean plot of Hamlet, and there are ample allusions to Shakespeare's original masterpiece, the characters and language in Fat Ham are modern and easy to understand and identify with. Think of it as Shakespeare meets Spike Lee, but with a comedic twist that leaves you feeling good after what most certainly should be a tragedy.

Heinley Gaspard, a PlayMakers Rep member in the third year of UNC's Professional Actor Training Program, is endearingly "soft" (as the other characters say) in his portrayal of Juicy, the non-aggressive son of Pap, who has recently been stabbed to death in prison.

Heinley Gaspard and Rasool Jahan star as Juicy and Tedra in PlayMakers' rendition of James Ijames' Fat Ham (photo by HuthPhoto)

Samuel Ray Gates plays Pap as well as Pap's Brother, the "Reverend" (Rev), who married Juicy's mother (Rasool Jahan) immediately before the play begins. Both Pap and Rev are played convincingly and comically by Samuel Ray Gates, a PlayMakers company member in his fifth season (and who, incidentally, was absolutely mesmerizing in his role as August Wilson in PlayMakers' 2022 production of How I Learned What I Learned).

Mengwe Wapimewah is decisive as Opal, the play's replacement of Hamlet's Ophelia, who -- rather than being the protagonist's love interest -- is a lesbian who has not yet revealed to the world that she "likes girls." And Kathryn Hunter-Williams is often hilarious in her portrayal of Rabby, the chest-beating Christian mother of Opal and her brother Larry (Jamar Jones), a decorated Marine who is privately LGBTQ.

But the highlights of the play are the performances of Rasool Jahan, who plays Juicy's sexy fun-loving mother Tedra, and Nate John Mark, who plays Juicy's porn-star-wannabe, pot-smoking cousin Tio. Jahan's dialogue hits home every time she opens her mouth. And, by the end of the play, just looking at Nate John Mark (Tio) will make you laugh.

Despite the imminent death of Juicy's uncle, the play ends on a happy note.

PlayMakers Rep's production of Fat Ham stars Heinley Gaspard (left) as Juicy and Samuel Ray Gates as Rev (photo by HuthPhoto)

Scenic designer Jan Chambers provides the audience with an overview of the family's backyard, which is decorated for Tedra and Rev's after-wedding party. Just beyond the back porch is a life-sized pig smoking on a real black cylindrical grill, alongside which is a table with barbecue picnic fixin's.

In the middle of the stage is the picnic table around which most of the action occurs, and beyond that is a small courtyard with benches and a plot of flowering plants. All of this is set against the background of a 3-D house, through the sliding back doors of which the furniture and decorated walls of a living room and hallway can be seen. The whole stage looks like the set of a Hollywood movie.

Not only is Fat Ham an introduction to Shakespeare's timeless masterpieces. The play won James Ijames the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which alone renders it worth your viewing -- if only to see what all the fuss is about.

It is noteworthy that the play contains adult language that incorporates cursing, sex, and drugs, so you should only bring your teenage kids if you have initiated them into R-rated movies. If this is the case, I'm sure you all will get just as much of a kick out of Fat Ham as my 13-year-old son and I did.

Jan Chamber's backyard BBQ set for PlayMakers Rep's production of Fat Ham deserves in own round of applause (photo by HuthPhoto)

James Ijames' FAT HAM (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 6-11 and 13-18), adapted from William Shakespeare's Hamlet, directed by Jade King Carroll, and starring Heinley Gaspard as Juicy, Samuel Ray Gates as Rev/Pap, Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Rabby, Rasool Jahan as Tedra, Nate John Mark as Horatio as Tio, Jamar Jones as Larry, and Mengwe Wapimewah as Opal (PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill's Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art). TRAILER: PRC VIDEOS: PRESENTER:,,,, and 2023-24 SEASON: PRC BLOG: VENUE: and DIRECTIONS/PARKING: CAROLINA TOGETHER COVID-19 PAGE: FAT HAM (2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winning Off-Broadway and 2023 Broadway Play):,,, and JAMES IJAMES (Winston-Salem, NC-born playwright and actor):,,,, , and NOTE 1: Seed Art Share of Raleigh will provide onsite childcare for ages 4-12 for $25 for the 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4th, performance. NOTE 2: The 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11th, performance will be an open-captioned performance, with a "universal-access" live-caption unit, communicating dialog, stage directions, and sound effects. NOTE 3: There will be a post-show discussion after the 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11th, performance. NOTE 4: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe and American-sign-language interpret the show's 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13th, performance. TICKETS: $20 and up ($10 students and youth), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-962-7529 or [email protected]. PLEASE DONATE TO: PlayMakers Repertory Company. Susie Potter's Triangle Arts Review Review.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children's picture books. She has published children's stories and verse in Highlights Children's Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of the Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council's Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn't writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as a Soil and Water Conservationist for the nonprofit Urban Sustainability Solutions. Click here to read Melissa Rooney's reviews for Triangle Review.


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