For playwright and actor James Ijames, a fascination with Shakespeare's "Hamlet" started his freshman year of college. Now, he's a Pulitzer Prize recipient for his modern day adaptation of the story, "Fat Ham." It's currently onstage at the Wimberly Theatre in a production presented by the Huntington Theatre in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective.

Ijames joined GBH Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen to talk about the production and the creative process.

Bowen describes "Fat Ham" as an "uproarious comedy" — a vast departure from the source material's tragedy.

"Shakespeare's play exists in a way that, even if you don't know exactly what happens, most people have a sort of passing understanding. And so the audience comes in with a set of expectations," Ijames said, "and the joy of upending those is that it does elicit laughter. It does sort of free the audience."

The beauty of this reinvention, according to Ijames, is that "you can do anything you want."

"The sound of the language, the sound of the story, the music, if you will, is what ultimately determines whether or not it's comedy or tragedy or rhythmic or existential," he said.

The cast of "Fat Ham" performs at the Calderwood Pavilion
James T. Alfred, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Thomika Marie Bridwell, Marshall W. Mabry IV, Victoria Omoregie, Amar Atkins. The Huntington’s Fat Ham by James Ijames. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb. Photo by T Charles Erickson. Running at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA September 22-October 29, 2023 in co-production with Front Porch Arts Collective and Alliance Theatre.
T Charles Erickson Huntington Theatre Company

Ijames wanted to bring the character of Hamlet and the story "a little closer to my own lived experience." That's why "Fat Ham" is set in a backyard barbecue in the South, and the protagonist — a Black, queer college student named Juicy — is conflicted about avenging his father’s murder and perpetuating a cycle of violence and trauma.

Ijames said many elements of the story, both in "Hamlet" and "Fat Ham," are universally relatable.

"Parents can identify with the anxiety of 'What is my child going to do?' Kids can identify with not wanting to disappoint their parents, or wanting to fit in with your peers," he explained. "['Fat Ham'] sort of has a person for you to meet in the play and go, 'I know you' or 'I know somebody like you' or 'I am you.'"

While intentionally drawn from and inspired by Ijames' own experiences, "Fat Ham" is written in a way that allows for each production to stage its own take on the story. Namely, in the text of the play, the final song is left open. Different production companies across the country have used everything from original scores to Alex Newell's "Kill the Lights" to RuPaul numbers.

"All of those productions have met that final moment very, very differently," Ijames said. "Every time I see an iteration, I'm like, 'That's great. I love that. That's so smart. That's so interesting.' And so I try to hold on as lightly as possible with stuff like that so that I can be pleasantly surprised and delighted."

"Fat Ham," on stage now through Oct. 29 at the Wimberly Theatre in a production presented by the Huntington Theatre in association with Alliance Theatre and Front Porch Arts Collective. To learn more, go here.