Tony-nominated ‘Fat Ham’ director Saheem Ali explains how he started reinterpreting Shakespeare

Headshot of Saheem Ali.
Northeastern graduate Saheem Ali was nominated for a Tony award this year for his work directing “Fat Ham,” a modern retelling of “Hamlet.” Courtesy Photo

Shakespeare’s work is fertile ground for directors. The Bard’s sparse stage directions, dynamic characters and rich language leave ample room for interpretation for creatives, allowing them to turn centuries-old stories into something new with each staging. 

This sort of innovative adaptation is one of the trademarks of Saheem Ali, director and Northeastern University graduate in the class of 2003. Under his direction, “Richard II” — a play about the final years of the usurped British monarch — turned into a serialized broadcast production about race and systems of power.  

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” was adapted with playwright Jocelyn Bioh into “Merry Wives,” turning a story about 15th-century England into one about the West African communities in modern day Harlem — and changing it into a modern-day American tale by doing so.

“It’s a very subjective experience to just sit down and read a play and try and imagine it in a way that I feel like I hadn’t seen before,” Ali said in a recent interview with Northeastern Global News. “Something just comes to me, and I follow the impulse.”

His Shakespeare productions often center on BIPOC characters and stories, something that can be traced back to his original exposure to the playwright before coming to Northeastern. Ali grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, where the school year runs from January to December. This meant he had seven months of free time between when he graduated high school and when he started at Northeastern. 

Ali already had an interest in theater, sparked by seeing a production of “Grease” in London. So before starting school, he took part in a production of “Romeo and Juliet” at a small Kenyan theater where he was cast as Mercutio. 

Like many before him, he fell in love with Shakespeare’s language and characters. But he then became intimidated when seeing American adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays upon moving to the U.S.

“(I had) an introduction to Shakespeare that was very much a non-European, non-white perspective,” he said. “Then coming to America, all the Shakespeare plays that I started to see in Boston were all white people. They were all talking with British accents. It was not my introduction to Shakespeare at all. I didn’t have the confidence to make Shakespeare my own and I just felt excluded from it.”

But over the course of his undergraduate career at Northeastern, Ali started to get exposure to different types of theater and found his path. Originally a communications major with a computer science minor, Ali switched his major to theater without telling his parents, who wanted him to pursue a more practical career path. (“My parents are good middle-class, African parents, so they didn’t let me study theater,” he said, adding they didn’t find out about the switch until six months before he graduated. His mother was so angry about the change that she skipped his graduation.)

Ali began directing student productions, starting with a one act by Neil Simon done at a small stage (literally called “The Itty Bitty Theater) in Ryder Hall. From there, he started assisting in shows for Northeastern’s main stage before making his solo directorial debut senior year with productions of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical “The Fantasticks” and Eugene O’Neill play “The Hairy Ape.” 

“It was really at Northeastern where I found I enjoyed directing more than I enjoyed acting,” Ali said. “I just felt I wanted to create pieces. I wanted to be responsible for a room, I wanted to (take)  ideas and kind of bring them to fruition.”

Ali also did co-ops with the now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lunne in Minneapolis and the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in Boston. These co-ops, along with seeing the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s shows on the common were “instrumental” in giving him a new perspective on how theater could be done.

“I saw you could take Shakespeare and make it your own,” he said. “It wasn’t until after that that I fell in love with working on Shakespeare, but also taking it and putting it especially in perspectives of BIPOC stories. I’ve set my productions in Latin American communities and African communities. … I’ve always been looking for ways to set the productions in communities and cultures that felt exciting and different, that reflected my own identity as a person of color.”

Ali’s work as a student with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company led to him assistant directing several productions there, both during and after his time at Northeastern. His work on shows like “Henry V” and “Macbeth” kick-started his career. His resume totes not only iconic Shakespeare retellings, but operas like “Powder Her Face,” musicals like “Hair,” and plays including “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America.”

Ali tends to focus on lesser-known Shakespeare works. But when his friend James Iijames sent his play, “Fat Ham,” a few years ago, Ali was hooked. 

“Fat Ham,” which is coming to the Huntington Theater in Boston this month, is a modern retelling of “Hamlet,” set at a Southern barbecue. The titular brooding prince of Denmark is replaced with Juicy, a queer Black man who isn’t interested in committing revenge in the way his father’s ghost demands.

“When he sent me ‘Fat Ham,’ I thought ‘Oh my goodness, this is exactly what I’m interested in,’” Ali said. “It’s contemporary, it’s Shakespeare. It’s Black, it’s queer, it’s American. It had all these resonances … that I’d been seeking to do whenever I was adapting Shakespeare on my own. It just felt like such an extraordinary opportunity to do something that resonated with the way I was interested in doing Shakespeare.”

“Fat Ham” debuted in Philadelphia in April 2021 with a filmed production before going off-Broadway in May 2022 at The Public Theater (where Ali currently serves as associate artistic director). The show ran on Broadway in 2023 for a limited run. In its brief stint, it drew critical acclaim and numerous Tony nominations, including one for Ali for best director, no small feat for his first show on Broadway.

The success of “Fat Ham,” which also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2022, shocked Ali.

“Every time I do a play, I approach it the same way,” Ali said. “I’m in it 180 percent. I’m excited to do it. (But) because it’s the theater, I understand that it’s ephemeral.  You do it. It’s exciting. And then you move on to the next project. So never in a million years did I dream that ‘Fat Ham’ would be the production that would transfer to Broadway, that would get me nominated for a Tony Award. Never in a million years would I have predicted that.”

Fresh off this success, Ali is now shifting his focus to launching two new musicals in New York: “The Buena Vista Social Club,” a show with music from a Cuban album from the ’90s by the same name, and a musical adaptation of a myth called “Goddess,” which he’s trying to bring to New York with composer Michael Thurber and his “Merry Wives” collaborator, Bioh.

But his reimaginings of Shakespeare remain his trademark. Much like how English can be spoken in different dialects, Shakespeare’s stories can be told in different ways.

“My relationship to language and dialect is very much like how I enter Shakespeare,” he said. “Anyone who can speak the language can take ownership of it. You don’t have to speak it a certain way, you should be able to speak it in a way that’s true and authentic to you. … There’s just so many ways in which Shakespeare can become more exciting, different than the traditional approach that we imagined it to be.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @erin_kayata.