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A Pulitzer Prize winner's modern take on Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'
William Brangham: As Shakespeare wrote, what a piece of work is a man.
Well, now a man named James Ijames has reworked Shakespeare's "Hamlet." His new play, "Fat Ham," recently won the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Jeffrey Brown has the story from New York, part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Actor: I think my uncle and my father killed.
Actor: And now my father wants me to kill my uncle.
Jeffrey Brown: Actually, make that North Carolina, where the setting is not Elsinore Castle, but a backyard barbecue.
Actor: Juice, guess Rick James' birthday.
Actor: April 12.
Jeffrey Brown: The son with a murdered father, not a prince named Hamlet, but a Black, queer, Southern young man called Juicy.
Actor: That was deeper than I expected.
And the playwright, not William Shakespeare, but James Ijames.
James Ijames, Playwright: It is my conversation with Shakespeare. It is me trying to, like, talk to the guy.
Jeffrey Brown: To Shakespeare, saying what, for example?
James Ijames: I get to say, see, this was what your story or the story that you discovered and wrote a version of, this is what it can do now.
Jeffrey Brown: Shakespeare's story, of course, is "Hamlet."
Kenneth Branagh, Actor: To be or not to be.
Jeffrey Brown: And there is little question it is among history's best-known works, a tragedy of vengeance in which, no spoiler needed, a lot of bodies end up on the floor, including the title characters.
Actor: Pretty cool about your mom and uncle.
Jeffrey Brown: James Ijames' version, titled "Fat Ham," unfolds rather differently.
It was first presented in streaming video due to the pandemic, produced by the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where Ijames serves as a co-artistic director. The play is now getting its first in person production with a new cast and director at New York's Public Theater, where I met Ijames.
James Ijames: Early drafts are very much beat for beat. I am tracking Hamlet.
Actor: I just saw your daddy.
Actor: What do you mean?
Actor: He was there walking across the yard right there in the middle.
James Ijames: And then you get to the end of "Hamlet," and I go, oh, right, I'm in a backyard, and everybody has to die.
James Ijames: Like, that is literally what happens in the play. So, I had to rethink what my relationship to the ending was, which made me rethink how I wanted to tell the whole story.
Jeffrey Brown: This family in the backyard, loud, kind of going at it, loving, hating, all of it together, this is in some sense your family?
James Ijames: Yes, and my community. I was always surrounded by that energy.
And I think it is worthy of the stage. I don't always see it. And so I wanted to bring that to life for people.
Actor: You all ready to pray?
Actor: You know I am.
James Ijames: It is my attempt to bring the Black South closer to these plays and to Shakespeare's language.
Jeffrey Brown: This is the set, but this also feels like home?
James Ijames: Oh, yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
James Ijames: Yes, this edifice here with the doors very much looks like the house I grew up in when I was a kid.
Jeffrey Brown: Ijames grew up in Bessemer City, North Carolina, which he describes as a close-knit, church-centered community. He did not come out as gay until his 20s. He began writing, though, in his teens, a way, he says, to get often painful feelings out of his head.
He would later go on to act and direct as well.
Actor: I have heard a guilty creature sitting at a play...
Jeffrey Brown: He loves Shakespeare, and so does his character Juicy. Language from hamlet is mixed into "Fat Ham," as when Juicy addresses the audience directly.
Actor: I will have these players play something like the murder of my father before my uncle.
Jeffrey Brown: But Ijames also wanted to play with the idea of tragedy itself...
Actor: I'm going to become so mean and brutal and awful.
Jeffrey Brown: ... to ask how he might break out of cycles of vengeance and violence.
Actor: Don't do that.
James Ijames: The expectation, particularly for Black storytellers, is that we are going to tell tragedies, that our existence is tragic.
And I don't know that I agree with that. I think that tragedy happens. And we're living through a sea of tragedy right now, on so many different levels. And the thing that has kept me and sustained me through all of that...
Actor: You could stand to be more honest.
James Ijames: ... is my ability to make other people laugh and for people to make me laugh.
Actor: You had to think about that answer? That was there?
Actor: You always think you all are more complex than you actually are.
Jeffrey Brown: And so "Fat Ham" is funny, very funny, including knowing winks at Shakespeare
Actor: The king, my queen, is dead.
Actor: It's Shakespeare.
Jeffrey Brown: And PBS.
Actor: You watch too much PBS.
Actor: How can one watch too much PBS?
Jeffrey Brown: But there is also the threat of violence and a demand that men be ready to take deadly revenge.
Actor: You could get hard and mean and cold deadly.
Actor: I don't know if I could do that.
James Ijames: Juicy, being a person who is very alive in his softness, very alive in his queerness, in this place that is not welcoming to that.
Jeffrey Brown: Not at all.
James Ijames: Not at all.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
James Ijames: But I wanted to make him as soft as possible in this world, that he -- to show people, like, even in the midst of this really, really cruel and brutal environment, you can hang on to the parts of yourself that make you different, make you unique, make you special.
Actor: You're weird, Juicy.
Jeffrey Brown: Ijames has his character Opal, think Ophelia, say this directly.
Actor: What he thinks is your weakness is going to save you, Juicy.
James Ijames: And that has always been true for me. The things about me that people thought made me weak have been the things that have brought me to this moment. I truly believe that.
It took me a long time to accept my identity. It took me a long time to be confident, period. And so I'm hoping that the play offers people the spark to know that that's the thing that they can just like -- they can just turn that on for themselves.
Jeffrey Brown: Does theater have that power anymore?
James Ijames: I think it does.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
James Ijames: Theater reinforces the truth that we're actually not alone, even though everything keeps telling us that we are.
Jeffrey Brown: An end to cycles of tragedy. If "Hamlet" can become a kind of comedy of confidence and survival, then perhaps anything is possible.
Actor: Me, myself, I plan on getting into the cannabis industry, open up a little boutique.
Jeffrey Brown: And if the Bard himself objects?
James Ijames: He can't say much to me now, which is kind of the great thing about being able to adapt Shakespeare, is that he can't say anything.
Jeffrey Brown: You have the last word here.
James Ijames: I do.
Jeffrey Brown: James Ijames' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Fat Ham," runs through July 3.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Public Theater in New York.