Photo: Austin Arty.

Interview w/ Brenson Thomas

Pulitzer prize-winning author of "Fat Ham," now at the Wilma Theater, Philadelphia

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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To laugh or not to laugh, that is not a question for audiences watching playwright James Ijames ‘Fat Ham’ the Pulitzer Prize winning comedy inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but instead of being a tortured Danish Prince, the central character ‘Juicy’ is gay African American college student who finds out his uncle murdered his father while he was putting up decorations for a BBQ to celebrate his mother’s marriage to the villainous uncle.

‘Fat Ham’ debuted as a virtual Wilma Theater production in 2021 at the height of the pandemic. The original cast made up of The Wilma’s Hot House ensemble who were quarantined on a farm in Virginia with a film crew with Covid safety protocols in place during the shoot. 

The online streaming production by Wilma was a critical and commercial success. Post-Pandemic it was even a bigger one in its first live performance at New York’s Public Theater in 2022, which then moved to Broadway, where it garnered five Tony nominations and was widely praised. And last spring Ijames was awarded a Pulitzer earlier this year and there have been 12 regional theater productions of the play around the country, now finally in an extended live run in Philly at the Wilma Theater. 

 Brenson Thomas plays the central role of ‘Juicy’ the theatrical descendent of Shakespeare’s brooding Danish Prince. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who muses over his fate, has remained the penultimate role for leading actors over four centuries. ‘Juicy’ is soul searching in the midst of his dead father speaking to him and over the top family drama, however comic.

A ghosts stated in an online interview that he “was curious about the comic possibilities inherent in Shakespeare’s tragedies….what happens if you lean into that… if I said that a ghost came to me and told me that my uncle murdered my father. Why would you do that? Why would you listen to a ghost?”

In a phone interview during previews of the play last month, Thomas acknowledged that “Juicy’ is definitely a challenge for me, the arc that he takes throughout the play is a pretty wide one. He is a deep thinker, very emotional already, and on top of that he finds out his uncle has his father killed.”

That situation is what Juicy is dealing with at a family BBQ in celebration of his Mother’s wedding to his uncle and he is, like Hamlet, told this by his father’s ghost.

His dialogue is laced with some riffs on some of Hamlet’s most famous lines, such as his “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy, but as Thomas notes, in this context “With James, the words just flow, when my character speaks the Shakespearean text.” In this context the words can ignite both pathos and laughter.

“Juicy is, as Thomas notes “Being able to play a black, queer man, who relishes in his softness, queerness, and weirdness and in a lot of contemporary plays- such characters are not at the center of the narratives. So, I’m grateful that I can embody Juicy now,” he adds that “Juicy is going to become one of the great roles in the theater canon…being able to play a Black queer person, as a black queer person myself, is thrilling.

Thomas showed his comedic and vocal  range in the Arden Theater’s fine production of Sondheim’s ‘Into The Woods’ last year. He was also in the cast of Ijames drama ‘Abandoned’ at Theatre Exile in South Philadelphia earlier this year.

Thomas said that he first saw ‘Fat Ham’ in its filmed version, then attended the New York production, and was cast in the lead this past July for Wilma’s stage revival.

 “I knew everyone in the cast before coming into the rehearsal process. And some folks I’ve known for years actually. we started out in this business, young eager actors trying to make our way. Now being here at the Wilma doing this particular play is a dream come true in a lot of ways.

Brenson credits director Amina Robinson for the relaxed creative environment bringing this production to the Wilma stage for the first time. “Our director really sets a tone,” he notes  “ to let her actors experiment and play and make discoveries on our own, without a deadline, and here we had a lot of time to develop these characters.”

Brenson the cast are Lindsay Smiling (Rev/Pap), Anthony Martinez-Briggs (Tio); Brandon J. Pierce (Larry) and the new cast members Donnie Hammond as Tedra; Jessica Johnson Opal and Zuhairah as Rabby and Brenson Thomas as ‘Juicy’ a stage descendent of Hamlet in a raucously funny and poetically laced southern tale with Shakesperean genderfluidity on the side.

“Always really exciting when James comes on the scene with something new,” Thomas said. “And he’s a Philly guy too… when he comes to the Wilma, it always like he’s coming home.” 

On opening night, Ijames was in the house for a victory lap performance run and full circle moment for his play finally being performed in the theater for which it originally conceived before the pandemic shutdown. On this night the cast curtain calls turned into a dance party at the show’s denouement with Sylvester disco bomb ‘Mighty Real’ rocking the theater as cast, director and designers took their bows and everyone in the room on their feet and dancing along with the cast to Sylvester’s disco-bomb ‘Mighty Real.’t

The Wilma Thater’s production of ‘Fat Ham’ performances thru Dec. 30, 2023

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