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Palpable Queer Black Joy: An Interview with Director Timothy McCuen Piggee

Hear from Fat Ham Director Timothy McCuen Piggee about his perspective on Shakespeare's Hamlet, this #BuiltBySeattle Rep production, and more in this conversation with Seattle Rep.

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Seattle Rep: What excites you most about directing Fat Ham

Timothy McCuen Piggee: I am most excited about the individuals that I have the good fortune to partner with on Fat Ham. This creative team is exceptional, so welcoming and imaginative. I’m also excited to see how this company of actors will illuminate the play. 

There’s a lot of discussion about what [playwright] James Ijames has written, and everyone seems to have their own opinion as to what it is. Is it an adaptation of Hamlet? Is it a reflection of Hamlet? Is it informed by Hamlet? I’m excited to share with the audience what this team of creatives and I feel that this play is. I’m excited to be in collaboration like this. It’s so rare; this is a singular experience in my career so far. I’ve been living with this play in my head for a year, and it's been the best of daydreams to have and be preoccupied with. 

SR: Stepping back from Fat Ham for a moment, what is your relationship with Shakespeare’s Hamlet

TMP: I read it as a young person, then experienced live performances and film adaptations, but I’ve never performed in or directed Hamlet. So, it’s been fun to view it from a new perspective, being at the age I am versus when I was young, and the things that resonate with me now that didn't when I was younger. 

To me, the questions I have about both Fat Ham and Hamlet are, what obligations do children owe their parents? When does a child manifest the autonomy of being their own person? (“I am of you, but I am not you.") I think that’s something that the characters Juicy, Opal, and Larry, and any young person—in particular, any queer young person—might be trying to answer. 

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SR: We’re thrilled to have this production built in-house by local artisans and starring a largely local cast. How do you see this production as a showcase for local artistic talent? 
TMP: In terms of the artisans and production staff at Seattle Rep, I’m waiting for someone to say “no!” They are very much on board and excited to make this the most unique experience. As far as the cast, all but one actor has some connection to Seattle. I’m so excited to have audiences think, “I'm going to see an old friend” or “I had no idea that that was inside them.” These actors get to reveal themselves in new ways. 

SR: Is there anything else you would like audiences to know before they see the show? Anything you’d like them to take away? 

TMP: Audiences don’t have to sit on their hands! They should feel free to participate; this is an interactive piece.  

There’s a lot of generational trauma that is talked about and experienced in the world of the play. Everyone knows (or will know now) that in Hamlet, pretty much everyone is dead at the end. But what the character of Juicy offers is different from Hamlet: In Fat Ham, Juicy is the one voice that stands up and says, “We don’t have to live our inherited trauma." It is important to the team and I that the representation of Black joy—and specifically queer Black joy—should be palpable throughout this performance. You may not know much about aspects of African American life, as many times what we see are only representations of Black and Brown bodies being traumatized. There is the mundane in Fat Ham, but there’s also the extraordinary, and people who live in our community should know that Black joy can spring out of nowhere. Then it can turn to something else, and then when least expected, it can spring forth again. 

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There’s an awful lot of joy in the community because that is how we’ve had to survive and stay sane. How do we make sense of the world that we’re asked to move through? If you don’t have a sense of humor about it or if you can’t look at it through the lens of the safety valve of what humor can do, we’d go mad. I think that’s another sort of harmonic to the play Hamlet, because people go crazy in that play, and I think the young people in Fat Ham are potentially on the brink of it. Goodness knows the adults are! But one way to heal or cope with that is through the embrace of joy. 

There's something that I discovered about a year ago: I heard an interview by a theater artist by the name of Ravi Jain, and he says that “We're always playing to three audiences at the same time: Those who know it, those who don’t know it, and those for whom it means everything.” With Fat Ham, we hope to achieve all three. 


See Fat Ham on stage at Seattle Rep, playing April 12 - May 12 in the Bagley Wright Theater.



Pictured: Timothy McCuen Piggee. Photo by LaRae Lobdell; Timothy McCuen Piggee, Aishé Keita, Chip Sherman, Dedra D. Woods, and Reginald André Jackson in rehearsal for Fat Ham (2024). Photo by Sayed Alamy; Timothy McCuen Piggee and Taj E.M. Burroughs in rehearsal for Fat Ham (2024). Photo by Sayed Alamy.