Pictured: Heinley Gaspard. Photo by HuthPhoto.

In the backyards of North Carolina, mosquitoes buzz around an open Tupperware of coleslaw and potato salad, while warm laughs of celebrations fill the humid sky. Ancestors hover over their loved ones, hoping to be a part of the moment and catch a glance of the pig roasting in the pit of the grill – oh, and to avenge their own deaths. The premise of this story might sound unfamiliar, but in fact, it dates back to 1600 with a different setting: the rolling hills of Denmark.

Shakespeare’s story of tragedy and revenge, Hamlet, has been read and loved over many centuries. This adoration has carried into the 21st century with its 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning sister, Fat Ham, now being performed by Playmaker’s Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Paul Green Theater in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art. What better way to continue a Pulitzer play’s legacy and Southern setting than to bring it to          North Carolina’s very own stages (or backyards)?

The production runs 1 hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission, and with minimal casting and maximum set design, audiences were entranced and laughing out loud for the entire 90 minutes. Immediately walking in, I was immersed in the familiar setting of an outdoor summer North Carolina BBQ. The feelings were nostalgic and new all at the same time. From a life-size house and trees to scattered balloons and party decorations, the set, designed by Jan Chambers, was quite impressive and carried the show to its end. The lighting, designed by Benjamin Bosch, was another standout, reminding audiences when they were inside the character’s thoughts or home in the backyard.

The show opens on two friends, Juicy (Heinley Gaspard) and Tio (Nate John Mark) joking around and preparing for a backyard BBQ in a post-wedding celebration. Right from the jump, it was clear that Tio would be a crowd-favorite character as Mark brought charismatic energy and a goofy spirit when delivering each line.

Following the original storyline of Hamlet, Juicy is approached by the ghost of his late father, Pap (Samuel Ray Gates), who is seeking revenge on his brother, Rev (also played by Gates). Pap requests that Juicy avenge his death by murdering Rev, completely disregarding the feelings that Juicy may have towards this abnormal request. At this moment the audience is taken into Juicy’s mind, where we begin to understand the bumpy relationship the father and son had. Even though Juicy loves his father, he doesn’t miss him and is even a little glad he is dead. “My memory of him,” Juicy says, “won’t let me miss him.” This guilt follows Juicy up until Rev’s final breath.

As the celebration continues, we are introduced to the newlywed, Juicy’s mom, Tedra (Rasool Jahan) and Juicy’s new father, and uncle, Rev. The chemistry between the two actors was undeniable and really reinforced the themes of complicated familial relationships and the lengths we are willing to go for them. A crowd favorite moment came at karaoke hour when Tedra gets up on the picnic table to serenade her new lover and gets maybe a little too close for Juicy’s comfort. Jahan was another clear standout and my favorite performer of the night, conveying the complexities of being a mother through simple facial expressions and brilliant line delivery.

At this point in the play, it was clear that every other line would be a joke. Whether it landed or not was up to those sitting in the audience, as the cast delivered each line with the written intention. For the most part, the jokes received more than a handful of laughs, but it was a toss-up on if they landed with everyone or not. The subtle jokes and jabs at Shakespeare himself were brilliant, and I wished to have heard more in that vain.

Further into the BBQ, audiences are introduced to Rabby (Kathryn Hunter-Williams) and her two children, Larry (Jamar Jones) and Opal (Mengwe Wapimewah). These characters add another interesting layer to the story as they come to the BBQ with handfuls of dessert, ugly church dresses, and trauma. The themes present in this modern Hamlet are the different stages of grief, including guilt and anger, the continuation of parental control – even after death – generational trauma, cycles of violence, and the bare minimum of love.

After Juicy and Rev bicker, Tio goes on a lengthy weed-infused monologue about a gingerbread man and the meaning of life. The characters and audience members were quite confused, but enjoying every moment of the story, until Tio reveals to Juicy that he must “choose pleasure over violence,” just as the gingerbread man had done in the story. The quirky story is clearly a message to Juicy that he needs to accept his sexuality and live his life according to his own plan, not that of his closed-minded late father. Even though audience members are silently rooting for Juicy to finish off Rev, they also come to the realization that the violence cannot occur and will only create more issues.

The final moments of the show were by far the greatest. Larry accepts his own queerness and surprises his family with a glittery, lip-syncing performance of Stephanie Mills’ iconic “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” decked head to toe in a gorgeous purple and blue costume and pumps. Glitter rained down from the rafters and as Rev “came back to life,” audience members stood up and began clapping even before the final bows were taken. The cast of Fat Ham embodied their characters flawlessly and delivered performances worthy of the play’s Pulitzer Prize.

Fat Ham continues through Sunday, February 18. For more details on this production, please follow this link.

Photo: Pictured Heinley Gaspard. Photo by HuthPhoto