Currently in previews at The Public Theater, Marcel Spears stars as Juicy in James Ijames’ 2022 Pulitzer-winning play Fat Ham. Ijames explodes Shakespeare’s psychological classic Hamlet into a drama at times comic, at others tragic. Rather than a wedding feast in Denmark, the play takes place at a cookout in the modern-day South. Juicy, a queer college kid, grapples with similar struggles as Shakespeare’s title character: identity questions, the ghost of his father, and a supernatural demand for vengeance. He also faces the choice of whether to perpetuate or end the cycles of violence and trauma he has inherited. The Public Theater and National Black Theatre co-production officially opens May 26 and runs through June 12.
Spears sat down with Playbill to talk about the show, what it means to him as an actor, and how Fat Ham invites Black actors and audiences into Shakespeare and the theatre.
How did you first encounter Fat Ham?
Marcel Spears: It’s so funny, because the show is so much more than the logline. My agent first brought it to me, and because I was classically trained at Columbia, he knows that Shakespeare is my homeboy. He goes, ‘There’s this play, Marcel. It’s based on Hamlet; it’s sort of a remix that unpacks it through a new lens…It’s set at a family cookout in the South.’ I went, ‘Out in the South?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, a Black family.’ Then I said, ‘Wait a minute…okay.’
What about the play caught your attention?
I was excited to read it. When I dug into the play, obviously the parallels between Fat Ham and Hamlet are very clear and beautifully, creatively layered into this play. But, I saw so much of myself, my family, and people that I know, being a Southern Black man myself. After talking to James, seeing the parallels between my family and his, and unpacking those themes, I couldn’t put it down. I read it a million times.
Are you enjoying the familiarity of the characters or the challenges of the role more?
It's both. I think, as an artist, it’s so layered and it’s never exactly what you see on paper. The play is a comedy, until it’s not. It’s a tragedy, until it isn’t anymore. Playing Juicy, the journey mirrors Hamlet’s, but it’s so specific and it really is a workout. It’s an actor’s playground in such a fun way, and I haven’t gotten the chance to play a character like that in a long time. Getting to know Juicy, finding my interpretation of that character, working with what James has given us with the raw materials of this play has been really amazing.
As a human being, I always enjoy Shakespeare. But as a young Black person, I didn’t always see myself reflected in it, and if I’m being completely transparent, sometimes it would feel like I wasn’t necessarily invited to. The way I articulate myself, the way I grew up talking, you don’t really see that in staunch, classic, Shakespearean trained actors. It wasn’t until I went to college at Prairie View A&M University, which is an HBCU, that I learned Shakespeare from Black actors who were like, ‘No. This story is universal. These feelings like pain, grief, joy, all of these things are universal. You are welcome here; you can find yourself in it.’
Getting to do that, going on that journey as an actor, has been really beautiful and a full circle moment. Now, not only is Fat Ham universal like Hamlet, but I literally see myself reflected in it. I can see people that look like me, sound like me. The texture of these characters, they feel so familiar to me, and that is really validating.
With Ijames taking Hamlet to a wholly new place, do you think audiences will be surprised by the direction the play takes?
They’re going to be utterly aghast, they’re going to be completely taken on a ride. I think what James does so beautifully is he honors the source material, but in adding the lenses of Blackness and queerness, he allows us to live in a different space, to take turns and make choices that I think would definitely surprise the audience. I think there’s a lot of service to the theatre and Shakespeare nerds, but there’s so many surprises. Even Opal, played by Adrianna Mitchell, is a version of Ophelia that is unlike any Ophelia I’ve ever seen. I think James made that choice intentionally, because the women in his life who would have been a kind of Ophelia just didn’t operate the way that we’ve seen Ophelia operate before. The way of feeling and navigating the world as a Black woman and the experiences that she’s lived are different. I think James makes consciously different choices with all of the characters like that. It honors the source, but still tells a very different story that I think everybody can appreciate.
What are your hopes for this production?
As storytellers, we give the larger public an opportunity to see themselves and take a look at themselves in a way they didn’t think about before. It allows people the space to be heard where they might not normally, and gives us a safe space to talk about certain things. When I’m taking on the role of Juicy, I understand it’s not just me there. That character represents so much, and gives voice to a community that is often othered, or marginalized, in a really heavy way in the country and the world. I want Juicy’s story to be heard, and I feel like if it can allow someone to see themselves in a way that encourages them—validates their life and experience—I think that’s a beautiful thing. Outside of that, I think this play is just a lot of fun, being so Black. It really gives the audience an opportunity to be invited to a cookout, and this is the most outlandish, insane cookout anyone could go to. I think that freedom and reckless abandon James writes with at times, and the way that he allows these characters to spill out into each other and all over the place, is really fun to watch.
Any advice for audiences coming to see the show?
One thing I would say, Black people have a culture of call and response. By that, I mean we typically talk at these kinds of events, and I think the culture of theatre oftentimes is so far removed from that. You sit and watch in silence, but this is definitely a play that shakes you to your core and invites you to engage with it. I encourage audiences coming to see the play to laugh out loud, cry, nod your head, give me some of those “mhmms,” and “uhuhs,” and “amens.” Bring your friend who doesn’t go to the theatre, bring your friends who might not feel seen in the theatre. Bring your Black friends to this play, bring your mom, bring your church members. This play is for them; it’s for the community.