Interview: How Saheem Ali is 'Blowing the World Open' with FAT HAM

Fat Ham is running on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre.

By: Apr. 28, 2023
Interview: How Saheem Ali is 'Blowing the World Open' with FAT HAM

One of the most anticipated and talked about new plays of this season is James Ijames' Pulitzer Prize-winning Fat Ham. It's a story brought to life by Saheem Ali, who after years of incredible work off-Broadway, now makes his directorial debut on Broadway.

In Fat Ham, Juicy is a queer, Southern college kid, already grappling with some serious questions of identity, when the ghost of his father shows up in their backyard, demanding that Juicy avenge his murder. But here's the rub! Revenge doesn't come easy to Juicy, a sensitive and self-aware young Black man in search of his own happiness and liberation. From an uproarious family cookout emerges a compelling examination of love and loss, pain and joy.

Below, Ali chats with BroadwayWorld about the joys of bringing the production uptown following its accliamed run at The Public Theater and gives us all the juicy (pun intended) details about some of his favorite moments so far.

The show has been open for a couple of weeks now. Now that you've had a chance to breathe, how are you feeling about it?

I feel really good! I have had a year of really fantastic projects. Putting Fat Ham up, I'm in workshops for two musicals... I feel very full and very blessed and fortunate to be working in the field that I care so deeply about and with projects and collaborators that I love. It's an embarrassment of riches!

You've worked on so much off-Broadway recently... I was actually really surprised to realize that this is your Broadway debut!

I really like new work. I've been working on developing this one musical for a long time, but mostly I work on new plays with new playwrights. I love discovering voices and going into creative processes where the show hasn't been done before. I think off-Broadway tends to take more risks with writers who are maybe in the early part of their careers, so yeah, I've spent the last three years there because I enjoy all of that so much.

The off-Broadway run wrapped up last Spring. Where was your focus in that in between period?

We didn't technically know that the show would transfer until around Thanksgiving. After the run at the Public, I went to Berkeley to work on the musical Goddess. Then, I did the lab of another musical, and by November, when it looked like a transfer was possible, I was like, " Oh, wow!" In my experience, in this industry you do a play, then you say goodbye to it. I had no idea that Fat Ham would be the one to transfer. From the moment we realized that I started to think very deeply about how to translate the show for a new theatre. We already did it in a 3/4 thrust, which is very specific in its engagement with the audience. So I was thinking early about how we would make it fit into a large, proscenium space.

They always say that adding an audience is the last factor in making a live show come together. Have you noticed any differences in the uptown crowd?

Not really, and that was delightful. The biggest shift was just the dynamic of where the audience is in relationship to the play. The audiences on Broadway are laughing at the same things, surprised at the same spots... we really haven't felt a huge change, surprisingly so.

Fat Ham
Photo Credit: Marc J. Franklin

The play has been with you for a while now. Have any of your perceptions of it evolved in that time?

I think if anything, I have found an even deeper respect for how dynamic and surprising it is that this play works! It's an adaptation of a classical piece. It's contemporary, but it has threads of Hamlet, but it's also its own thing. It shifts tones and styles so specifically and beautifully. If anything, time has really deepened by appreciation for James [Ijames]' writing and for this cast. This cast has the synergy and chemistry that you're always looking for. You don't mess with that once you find it!

It's so rare to be able to hang on to a whole company like that... especially when there is so much time in between the runs.

And cosmically, it's part of what has made this whole thing so special. James and I have had this relationship for a few years and love each other so deeply as humans an artists. The play felt so magical at the Public... like lightning in a bottle. To have captured that, even though the bottle changed [Laughs], we still kept the spark.

Coming back with the cast was so familiar, but we had this new kind of energy and lift. When we first rehearsed the play, the was no knowing what it was! We didn't know if it was gonna work! To come back to it with the wind beneath our wings was as good as it gets.

I'm sure there was a huge comfort in that.

Yes, I feel so fortunate that my first play on Broadway was something that I had done before, with a company and playwright that I knew and loved.

When you watch the show now, is there a moment that you feel that you particularly nailed?

Yes! "Creep'! That was one of those moments that was totally an exploration in rehearsals at the Public and worked so beautifully. Then bringing it uptown... the lights change and sometimes the audience screams! That moment makes people so joyful. The delight is palpable. Every time that happens, I'm like, "Wow, we really tapped into something magical."

Fat Ham
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The last five minutes of the show were a total highlight for me. How much of that was written into the script?

James makes these beautiful gestures on the page that allow a director to come in and collaborate on the expression of them. So the show has these three karaoke moments: Tedra, Juicy, and Larry. As a director, I looked at those moments and said, "How can they evolve? How can each of them do something that the previous one didn't?"

Tedra's is really straightforward. She does a song and dance. No bells and whistles. Juicy's is in a more psychological, surreal space. We go in his head and everyone is being manipulated in the way that he wants.

When we get to the end, I was like, "Sure, Larry can come out and do his own version of a lipsync, but how can we really blow the world open?" James has a stage direction about the way it feels when Larry comes out: "the play cracks open." Well what does that look like? Since we've been in the backyard the entire time, I thought it should literally crack open! We seen Larry go through a really intense moment, and then we go on to amplify the emotion of his release.

So many more people are going to get to see this play now that its on a Broadway stage. That has to be so exciting for you...

When we did it at the Public, we had an incredible run... but it was finite. I'm just really thrilled for more people to be able to enjoy James' writing and more people to see these performances. This world, these characters, this language has a platform now. Broadway is such a scale that it is different from anything else in this city, but it also puts a spotlight on the piece in a way that allows it to do even more. I'm excited for other places around the country to get to do it too! It's not just about more people getting to see it on Broadway, but everywhere.

I'm sure they will!

In the work that I do, I want to center people of color. I want to center stories that they may tap into really emotional states of pathos... but I want people to leave feeling like there is hope in the world. I'm so proud of this play because people leave feeling uplifted. I think that's such a gift. We all need to be lifted up by something.

Fat Ham is running on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre.

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