The Hot Wing King Is Spicier Than a Suicide Drumette
Katori Hall's new play is about a circle of gay black men in Memphis, Tennessee.
Cordell Crutchfield is a king. Specifically, he is the reigning king of the annual "Hot Wang Festival" of Memphis, Tennessee (which makes him more of a kang, really). But he is also a Georgetown graduate, a former basketball player, and a father of two who is still married to his wife, despite living with his long-term partner, Dwayne. He has so much complication in his life, but can he handle some more? And can he hold onto his crown while doing it? We find out in Katori Hall's charming new dramedy The Hot Wing King, now making its world premiere at Signature Theatre.
The play is set around a hot wing cooking competition, but its themes provide for a much heartier meal: The relationship between Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) and Dwayne (Korey Jackson) is already strained by the constant demands of Dwayne's job (as a hotel manager). This weekend is supposed to be about helping Cordell win, and the king has called his bannermen to assist, including his trusted barber, Big Charles (Nicco Annan), and Charles's latest beau, Isom (Sheldon Best). Together they form the "New Wing Order."
But their battle plans are thrown into disarray when Dwayne's shady brother-in-law TJ (Eric B. Robinson Jr.) shows up with a bag full of cash, asking that Dwayne pass it onto his teenage son EJ (Cecil Blutcher). EJ's mom died two years ago, and he doesn't want to live with his dad anymore (especially now that TJ is shacking up with his new girlfriend). He wonders if Dwayne and Cordell have enough room in their home and hearts to take on a part-time son.
The Hot Wing King is a sensitive portrait of black masculinity, and the tension that can arise between fathers and sons when they don't see eye-to-eye. Hall (whose Our Lady of Kibeho also debuted with Signature) approaches all of her characters with oodles of compassion, even those we are disinclined to like: A regularly absent father with a history of criminal behavior and an obviously unhealthy conception of manliness, TJ emerges as a surprisingly sympathetic figure by the end of the play (a layered performance by Robinson helps to reinforce our feelings).
Everyone in the cast is great: Through real chemistry seasoned with a dash of tension, Jeanlouis and Jackson portray an authentic-feeling daddy-zaddy relationship. Blutcher delivers a performance dripping with rage, but tempered by sweetness. Annan easily embodies the second role of a barber, which is as therapist and spiritual guide.
With a lavender streak through his hair and a cutoff shirt displaying his abs, the aptly named Sheldon Best has the comic timing of Lucille Ball, rattling off Hall's most memorable lines with consistent flair as Isom. "Ooooo, this like a banya," he shrieks as he stirs the pot (both on the stove and in the conversation). "I was gone go to the spa, but heyell. I'm finta get smoked out now."
When Dwayne later reveals that he won't attend the festival, Isom exclaims, "Oh my goodness. This like when Destiny's Child broke up," to which Big Charles acidly retorts, "You Michelle."
The linguistic richness of The Hot Wing King makes it particularly delicious to hear. Through clever wordplay, shameless vowel substitution, and '90s pop music references, these men have developed a vernacular that feels central to their identities as individuals and cohesion as a community. Hall delightfully documents the fact that there are few demographics in America wringing more joy and wit out of the English language than gay black men.
Steve H. Broadnax III has directed a snappy production that seamlessly slides back and forth over the border between comedy and drama. Michael Carnahan's detailed set depicts Dwayne's suburban home and the considerable care he has put into its decoration. But nothing conveys the individual styles of these characters more than Emilio Sosa's brilliant costumes, from Cordell's ex-jock activewear to Dwayne's hideous yellow Versace robe to Isom's "Fucci" murse. These men appreciate a bold fashion statement, even if the rest of the world looks askance.
The smell of chicken wafts over the audience as the men cook, leading to my one misgiving about the production: It really ought to be immersive, because I was seriously craving wings by the end of the show (tip: eat first).
But as both a comedy and a drama, The Hot Wing King is quite filling, and will leave you with a satisfying aftertaste days later.