Few plays have lingered on the collective mind for as long as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Since the first performance of this play well over 400 years ago, the revered drama has cemented itself in the Western canon, and for good reason. Theatre just does not get any messier.
The story introduces us to young Hamlet—the brooding Prince of Denmark—as he grieves his recently deceased father, King Hamlet. Hamlet senior’s brother, Claudius, takes advantage of the opportunity and marries King Hamlet’s widow, gaining power over the throne in the process. From there, King Hamlet’s ghost visits the prince, reveals the truth about his murder (spoiler alert: Claudius did it), and orders the young man to avenge his death by killing Claudius. Case in point: mess.
That villainous command sets the prince on a psychologically taxing journey of revenge, betrayal and, of course, love. As actor Marcel Spears explains, “Hamlet’s wrestling with himself and sitting under the burden of this responsibility he’s been tasked with. And the way that he navigates that trouble speaks directly to the human experience. You of course don’t have to be trying to avenge the death of your father in order to sit up and ponder: Am I able to do this? Is it right for me to do this thing? What is the cost?”
Spears thinks a lot about the relationship between Hamlet and humanity because he plays Juicy— a contemporary kind of Hamlet—in James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Fat Ham, which opened at The Public Theater in 2022 ahead of its 2023 Broadway run. But Spears’ version of the prince is pointedly different from what audiences are used to: Juicy is gay, Black, and the only thing royal about him is his Cleopatra-like eyeliner.
Spears has a companion though in actor Ato Blankson-Wood, who also steps into the role of Hamlet this season for The Public Theater’s 61st Free Shakespeare in the Park. Blankson- Wood joins the ranks of artistic greats Sam Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Oscar Isaac, who all played the part in previous Public Theater productions, but this new staging, directed by Kenny Leon, hinges on a present-day interpretation of the classic.
Spears and Blankson-Wood are both young, gifted, and beautiful Black men who consider the titular role a dream come true. “If you’re gonna do the canon, there are certain pieces as a young man that you look at and think, ‘iight, there’s gonna be a time when I do that.’ Hamlet is one of those,” Spears explains. “It’s Shakespeare’s longest play. There are seven or eight soliloquies where Hamlet is just unpacking all of his angst and fear and insecurity and pain. It’s a dream role, but you have to be up for the task—it’s a meaty one.”
Fat Ham doubles down on that meatiness in a literal way: Ijames sets the play at a Black family barbecue in North Carolina. All of the Bard’s tropes and some of those aforementioned soliloquies are still there, but Fat Ham clearly shoots for comedy, not tragedy. Before Broadway, however, Spears did have a go at a more traditional Hamlet back in graduate school and he credits that classical training for his success now.
Blankson-Wood finds similar strength from his previous educational and professional experiences: Graduate school planted the seeds for his burgeoning love of Hamlet as well. Before then, he did not have a ton of familiarity with the Bard. “When I got to school, I fell in love with this language and the roadmap that Shakespeare lays out for his characters. Hamlet, in particular, always felt aligned with aspects of who I am.”
Blankson-Wood is no stranger to The Public’s stages or audience. Most recently, he starred as Orlando in the Public Works production of As You Like It. But this opportunity still came with its fair share of pressure. “I found out about this production back in November or December [of 2022] and went through the whole journey of imposter syndrome—the fear, the excitement, all of it. Eventually, I landed in a place of ‘Let’s just go! Let’s get in this room and go.’ I was ready, you know?”
“That sounds like the arc of Hamlet,” Spears points out. And it’s true. Hamlet is perhaps most famous for his self-doubt, but by the end of the play he is brave enough to conquer his enemy. When asked what helped him move from fear to excitement, Blankson-Wood credits an early conversation with Leon.
Leon, like Blankson-Wood, is a part of The Public family. The Tony-winning director left his latest mark on the institution with the 2019 Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing which featured an all-Black cast. “[Leon] was immediately like a coach. And he made me feel like we’re gonna climb this mountain together. He understood that this was a huge undertaking for many reasons. But he knew if I trusted him and he trusted me, that we could do this together," says Blankson-Wood. "There’s something about that invitation to play that is really exciting. And Kenny is about us, right? So for that reason, I’m like, if I’m ever going to play Hamlet, I would like to do it with someone who has got my back.”
Even though Fat Ham and Shakespeare in the Park’s Hamlet take two different approaches, both plays are interestingly reset to the American South: North Carolina and Georgia, respectively. These states are a far cry from Denmark, so when Spears, born in Louisiana, and Blankson Wood, born in Maryland, are asked what makes the South so ripe for Shakespeare adaptations, they ponder a minute before answering.
“Frankly, I think a lot of this work is happening because of the racial reckoning that began in 2020,” Blankson-Wood begins. “New York audiences need to see Hamlet through a Southern lens. Our shows center the weight that’s put on Black men specifically (and Black people more generally) and I think this moment in history requires us to process Hamlet’s agony through us.”
“Shakespeare was very specific and aware of who his audience was,” Spears adds. “He knew the time he was writing in and who was going to be watching this thing. That’s why there are so many different folios; Shakespeare was always adjusting. As storytellers we are supposed to reflect the world around us. That’s the job and that’s what we’re doing. Even if you don’t happen to be a Black person from North Carolina or Atlanta, you should be able to empathize with our characters and recognize our shared humanity in the same way you do with a little white dude from Denmark.”
Free Shakespeare in the Park's Hamlet runs through August 6 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Fat Ham concludes its Broadway run at the American Airlines Theatre July 2.