Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King has just the right burn

Photo by Michael Brosilow

The Hot Wing King, Katori Hall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble dramedy now playing at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, centers on an annual Memphis hot wings contest, but it is fundamentally about the importance of family, both biological and chosen, and male friendships.

On a meticulously designed set (by Lauren M. Nichols) that allows us to see multiple locations within (and even outside of) an upscale Memphis townhouse owned by hotel manager Dwayne (Jos N. Banks), director Lili-Anne Brown and her cast create the relationships both hilarious and painful that bind six Black men to each other. Hall’s brilliant ear for dialogue (and dialect, for that matter) immerses us in a carefully crafted world that revolves around the relationship between Dwayne and his lover Cordell (Breon Arzell), which forms a major element of the drama of the play, and a spicy melange of their friends.

It’s the day before the event, and Cordell, who has made a career out of coming up with unusual, outrageous, and just plain funky recipes for hot wings–he even has a blueberry one—has been working on this year’s version and has invited his friends over to help prepare the chicken for grilling and to help him sell them once they are done. Among those friends are Big Charles (THEE Ricky Harris) and Isom (Joseph Anthony Byrd), a gay couple who are much more fun than Dwayne and Cordell, due mostly to the fact that Cordell has a stick up his ass about the fact that he is living rent-free in his partner’s home. The mostly taciturn Charles is more interested in a basketball game than the ostensible reason he is here, and Isom, who is not the brightest bulb in the lamp, prances and preens from the moment he arrives, pretty much demanding focus from his friends (and the audience).

(Byrd is really the cast MVP; most of the best moments in the play involve him, and Isom’s well-meaning error of pouring a whole bottle of a spice that is so hot it only needs a pinch into the pot meant to season the wings before grilling is basically the catalyst for the entirety of Act Two. Plus he is easily the most visually interesting of the characters.)

Also arriving is Dwayne’s nephew (the son of his late sister) Everett (Jabari Khaliq) and his ne’er-do-well father TJ (Kevin Tre’von Patterson), a petty thief and con man whose desire to impart his unique set of skills onto his son has led Everett to ask his uncle to allow him to live here instead of with TJ. (Hall’s plotting is great here: we only see TJ from a surface-level perspective at first, learning about his deeper feelings much later.) Everett is, in many ways, a typical sixteen-year-old, desiring more independence but not excited about spending his Saturday in a sweltering tent cooking wings, but he too has more depth than that.

With so many bodies onstage—even if the action sometimes moves a couple of them to the outside basketball court, the upstairs bedroom, or the small nook that holds a keyboard and some old family photos—Brown has a lot to juggle. It’s to her credit that no one ever trips over anyone else, though she can only accomplish that because the prominent kitchen counter affords enough room to hide behind, allowing these men to be static while they are working on cooking their wings. (In the photo above, a not-untypical static moment, Big Charles sits on a stool and Isom on the counter while the others banter behind it. I mean, when the central action of your play involves stirring a boiling pot—counterclockwise, please—things are likely to be visually quiet.) There are, however, many wonderfully active moments—including dancing, basketball, and the aforementioned prancing—that offset these calmer ones, and Yvonne Miranda’s costumes are sometimes visual statements themselves. (Wait until you see how the flamboyant Isom jazzes up the yellow “New Wing Order” t-shirt he has to wear for the festival.)

Ultimately, though we can easily predict the resolution of the Cordell/Dwayne situation (which is a bit of a strained subplot about a strained relationship), and the TJ & son subplot resolves way too easily and mostly offstage, Hall’s characters are so fundamentally enjoyable that they never fail to hold our interest. The Hot Wing King (and yes, there is an actual crown) is a joyous celebration of the many ways men can come together in friendship and love. I saw it on the last day of Pride month and was struck by the fact that even the clearly heterosexual characters were totally comfortable with all of the others. If only we could be this way in real life.

The Hot Wing King is now playing through July 21 at Writers Theatre. The show runs approximately 100 minutes with no intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *