Black, gay, and Southern—these are descriptors that Calvin Leon Smith proudly uses to describe both his character in the new Broadway dramedy Fat Ham and himself. “I am all three of those things. I hold each part of that identity so close to my soul and my heart,” Smith lovingly explains. “It's one thing to make a Broadway debut, but it's another to make one playing a character so close to my own personal experience.” James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning and Best Play Tony nominee reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet, setting it in a Black backyard cookout in the South. Smith is making his Broadway debut as Larry, a Marine who has recently returned home with secrets of his own.
“We're both gay Black men from the South and grew up in extremely religious families,” says Smith of the similarities between him and Larry. “And with that kind of concoction of identity comes a suppression of emotion, suppression of identity and it afflicts [one’s] true self.” Fat Ham was just extended on Broadway until July 2.
Smith, an MFA graduate from The Julliard School, was brought up in Memphis, Tennessee. “I was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention, with a Southern Baptist minister stepfather, and across-the-board religious family,” details Smith. “I've not known anyone, not a person in my family, who was not Christian, professing, and saved by the blood of Christ.” With his very religious upbringing in conflict with his sexuality, Smith dealt with years of turmoil that he now recognizes as religious trauma. “I was buying books on, like, gay apologetics and relationship to the Bible,” Smith recalls. “And it wasn't that the things were making that much sense, but they were kind of a salve or a tonic for me at the time.” Smith remembers that no matter how much he researched progressive doctrine in theology, his secret identity as a gay man and his religious upbringing battled in his mind.
“I still had a grip on this fear of dying and going to Hell,” says Smith. “I couldn't fall asleep. I would have nightmares about the Rapture.” These fears and anxieties were only exacerbated by the continued influence of his religious family. “I once got a video from my mom about this idea that Christ was coming back,” remembers Smith. “And my belief was so ingrained in this negative part of my mind, that I had this panic [attack] and I had to go to [my college administration] and tell them…I was really scared.”
Having spent more than half of his life grappling with his family and their religious beliefs, Smith speaks so calmly. Despite the turmoil of his past, he is grounded in his present. Though recalling specific memories of anxiety attacks brought on by interactions with family, Smith seems to be at peace. When asked how he has dealt with and continues to combat his past pain, he smiles and says, “Therapy!”
“I started going to therapy in grad school. I actually got rid of a lot of religious trauma while I was there, through therapy,” explains Smith. “My therapist gave me this great tool that I still use today, especially for negative thoughts that come into my mind. I have to ask myself, ‘Is this coming from me personally? Is this a belief that I have? Or is this coming from someone else? My mother? Is it coming from my grandmother? Who is this coming from?’”
Smith says that performing in Fat Ham has been its own learning experience. “I had never played a character that was so close to my own lived experience,” says Smith.
Spoiler alert: In the show, Larry confesses to Juicy (played by CBS’s The Neighborhood star Marcel Spears), how he wishes he could be open, free, and “soft” like him. The two men share a brief moment of intimacy before being interrupted. Later, Juicy outs Larry in front of his religious mother. The moment is yet another point of similarity between Smith and Larry: Smith too was outed about his sexuality. The too-familiar experience hit too close to home for Smith early on, causing panic attacks in rehearsals.
When he performed the scene in front of audiences during the show’s Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, he was faced with a new surprise. “Yes, he's being outed, but he's also sharing how he feels about Juicy, too. And almost every night, there would be laughter,” Smith details, admitting that the audience’s scoffs at Juicy and Larry’s intimacy, laughter, and jeering during Larry’s outing, left him distraught. “There would be moments where I was completely inconsolable upon my exit. And I would get so angry that people were reacting the way that they were.” Smith wishes he was able to ignore the responses, but they get the better of him. “I'm not really one of those actors who's like, ‘Oh well,’ because there’s never a separation,” he says. “Really, it's me on stage. I can’t escape my own brain and pretend like what's happening isn't happening to me, because it is.”
However, prior to opening on Broadway, Smith says that he had a personal epiphany about his relationship with audiences and performing in the show. The experience is now much more cathartic. “Once we got to Broadway, I now have this newfound understanding that everyone is coming to the theatre with their own given circumstances and their own relationship to queer folks, or lack of relationship to queer folks,” says Smith. “Seeing two Black men on stage being soft and vulnerable and intimate with one another, it can make people really uncomfortable—but that has nothing to do with me.”
The revelation has changed Smith’s mindset on who he hopes comes to see the play on Broadway. “My mission as an artist is to expand people’s capacity to empathize,” explains Smith. “So [whoever] the group of people are, that don't have that same empathy, that same light and softness of heart—those are the people that I want in the audience.” Smith says that he hopes that by bearing witness to the lives and stories of Black queer characters, audience members might open their minds and hearts.
Looking forward, Smith is proud, living openly and happily while continuing to explore and learn about himself, no matter what his family has to say. Smith mentions that his relationship with his mother and family is very a “specific dynamic.” She, and most of his family, have no plans to visit him in New York or see him in his debut Broadway show. “Two days after opening, I got a letter from my grandmother telling me (it was eight pages, single-spaced) why I was bound to Hell. So it's not over,” explains Smith. “I have put up boundaries, and I will not be talking to anyone who holds these beliefs because it's about finding peace. I have worked so hard to finally be able to live my life fully and out and proud. There are people still trying to shake and rattle the faith that I found in myself.”
Smith is thankful to those who are close to him—including his sister and cousin, who have always cheered him on, and his Fat Ham cast. “I feel a particular relationship with my cast, adds Smith. “Being able to say, ‘I'm going through this thing right now,’ and people coming back saying, ‘I'm here to lift you up, I have love for you. I have respect for you.’ It's really nice.” In fact, just before starting the interview, Smith received a text from one of his cast mates. “Nikki Crawford texted me, ‘I love you. That’s all,’” he says.
The work and process to maintain his peace is something that Smith says is never done—it’s a journey, not a destination point. While he fully admits he does not have all the answers, Smith has learned a few things from his own experience that he hopes can comfort other Black queer people with similar religious upbringings. For Smith, it boils down to not being afraid. "You can't let fear be your guidepost for being in a religion," he says. "That'll kill your spirit, I think.” Smith’s spirit, bruised, yet made stronger from his past, can be seen in glorious display eight times a week at the American Airlines Theatre.