Daddy issues in a pair of coins


Wherever there is a sensitive, life-scared, inexplicably angry young man relentlessly seeking an audience, you can be pretty sure a story about his father is about to spill out. This trope is as true in literature as it is in life: think Telemachus, Oedipus, Hamlet, the poor lost lads, or the long journeys, or the murder by Papa’s ghost. Legacy dysfunction — the kind of deep-rooted stuff that has grown men singing on “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” — is a classic theme, explored and elegantly transposed in a pair of recent pieces featuring featured queer, questioning, father-haunted protagonists.

Juicy (Marcel Spears), the seductive spinner of “Fat Ham”, by James Ijames, and Édouard Louis, the autobiographical character of the one-man show “Who Killed My Father”, adapted by Louis from his book-essay, are well regards, an unlikely pair. Juicy is black and Édouard is white; Édouard is French and Juicy is American. But they’re both working-class and alienated, and both try to find and save their softer masculinities amid warnings from macho father figures.

“Fat Ham,” which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, is a sometimes faithful, sometimes dizzyingly disruptive riff on “Hamlet,” with Juicy as that excruciatingly ambivalent, quick-witted but slow-acting mourner. He’s wearing black overalls, a black mesh tank top, black sneakers, and a dash of tasteful black eyeliner: a sort of chic, contemporary funeral costume that would fit right in on the streets of the East Village near the Public Theatre, where this production takes place, under the direction of Sahim Ali. But Juicy isn’t a New Yorker, he’s from North Carolina, which, as Ijames writes in an introductory note to his screenplay, exists “in some sort of liminal space between past and present. with an ambitious relationship to the future”. (Juicy could also live in “Virginia, or Maryland, or Tennessee,” Ijames says. “It’s not Mississippi, or Alabama, or Florida. It’s a different thing all together.”) The way Spears plays Juicy is equally liminal: smart but brain-fogged, funny but heavy, moving but stuck.

Juicy’s father, Pap (Billy Eugene Jones), was killed in prison, where he was bidding for a senseless crime: he killed someone because the man’s breath smelled bad. “Now . . . to be fair,” Juicy says, in one of her frequent direct-to-the-audience moments, “Boogie’s breath smelled like his insides were rotting. That kind of cartoonish reason for the violence works well as a twisted joke, but it’s also the crux of Juicy’s problems with her family and with the world Her father calls her “soft” as a derogatory and homophobic danger beneath the surface of Juicy’s interactions with d ‘other men, but, in truth, soft is the texture this big-boned kid wants for his life. What Pap sees as evil, Juicy understands as absolute good.

Pap visits Juicy, appearing as a ghost whose white clothes emit smoke in an extravagant otherworldly display, and demands revenge: the man who punched him in prison has been deputized by Pap’s brother. , Rev (also played by Jones). Both men were expert barbecuers; now Pap wants Juicy to skin his Uncle Rev like a pig. But Juicy isn’t interested in barbecue, or slaughter, or revenge. Rev is a despicable guy: after having his brother killed, he immediately married Juicy’s mother, Tedra (Nikki Crawford). And it is full of false religiosity. A prayer he utters during the post-nuptial barbecue in the backyard that serves as the setting for the play is one of many humorous tunes devised by Ijames and performed by Ali.

Juicy, as we learn, can be cruel in his own way, and his tendency is to “think” rather than participate, but it’s also evident that he craves love rather than war. Spears is a first-hearted performer, who rhymes Juicy’s moments of angst with her sleazy sides, highlighting how both attitudes stem from a deep deposit of frustrated affection for the sensual world and a hope for a life of its own making.

One of Ijames’ considerable accomplishments in “Fat Ham” is bringing out the Oedipal underpinnings of the character of Hamlet: despite Juicy’s indecisiveness and insistence that she misses her father, it’s clear that, at on some level, he’s also relieved to have the old man gone. Pap says father and son should be “one beating heart,” but Juicy and Tedra are a more natural pair. They have tension over Rev, but the ease between them still shines through. She playfully chases him around the backyard, calling him “thicc” and grabbing his back. “Baby, people pay a lot of money for an ass like that,” she sings. When she insists on barbecuing karaoke, it’s Juicy who fetches the machine and, even while pleading “Mom, no,” stealthily accompanies her rendition of “100% Pure Love.”

Pungent and sweet in equal measure, Juicy reminds me of the late Essex poet Hemphill, a master of outspoken desire whose smart, melancholy, life-hungry speakers toss out lines like these:

I’m alone for past kisses,
for wild lips some streets
breed for fun.
Romance is a chasm.
This kind of war scares me.
I do not want to die
sleep with soldiers
I do not like.

With fresh, vital force, Ijames and Juicy make the Hamlet saga more comedy than tragedy, taking a tortured tale of paternal influence and turning it into something of a party. They could, together, sing a verse from another Hemphill poem:

I am beautiful.
I will endure.

Like Juicy, Édouard Louis, in “Who Killed My Father” (at St. Ann’s Warehouse, directed by Thomas Ostermeier), is caught up in memories, trying to resolve their contradictions before he can move forward into the future. The title of the play does not lack a question mark: Louis’ intention, realized by means of a long inquisitive monologue, is to tell you, and not to ask, who killed his father. It’s a memory play with a big fictional element—Louis’ real father is still alive, a fact the play never reveals. But, as Louis makes clear in his denouement of their life together, the double disappointment of politics and prejudice made his father the object of a kind of social death, long before the process of bodily decomposition began.

The show opens with Édouard, alone at a cluttered desk, wearing a simple hoodie and jeans, looking into a laptop. Behind him is a screen enveloping the stage, on which moody photos and videos appear: snippets of a rainy highway drive; Edward on a beach, his slender body reflected on slippery sandy ground, surrounded by clouds of foam from crashing waves. He speaks in French, and a translation appears on the screen. Early on, he offered social theorist Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s saying that racism is “vulnerability to untimely death.” The fanaticism here, however, is homophobia. Edward wanted a DVD of “Titanic” as a childhood gift, and his father, he says, begged him to want something a little more boyish. Both of his parents called him names and the threat of violence was part of the vibe in their home, but he always dressed up as his favorite pop singers and danced. Édouard syncs some of those numbers for us, making “Who Killed My Father,” at least in part, the saddest drag show ever.

The play runs slowly and culminates in a condemnation of French politicians, such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Emmanuel Macron, whose austerity measures helped break Édouard’s father’s body as well as his spirit. It’s a good reminder that it’s not just your dad but your homeland – your homeland – that can block your future. Just days after seeing those broadcasts, nineteen children and two teachers in Texas were killed in a mass shooting, an occurrence now so common in America that it feels like an unwanted family heirloom, a legacy of paternal debt. The questions are the same: how to stop these recurring nightmares? How can we move forward? Finding answers means more truth, less filial piety, and God knows how long. ♦


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