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The Hot Wing King

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 1, 2020

Nicco Annan, Toussaint Jeanlouis, Korey Jackson,
Sheldon Best, and Cecil Blutcher

Photo by Monique Carboni
It is not uncommon for a theater production to appeal to the visual and aural senses, but it is rare that a show gets people talking about the enticing smells. Midway through the first act of The Hot Wing King, Katori Hall's delectable new play currently running at Signature Theatre, the main character whips up a sauce for chicken wings with a special recipe that he calls "Cajun Alfredo with Bourbon-Infused Crumbled Bacon." As the sauce simmers, the audience is drawn into the show, which centers around preparation for a hot-wing cooking competition, on a visceral level. Not since David Cromer created an olfactory coup de théâtre with the whiffs of bacon permeating Our Town has a play smelled so good.

To its credit, The Hot Wing King has abundant pleasures beyond its attention to aromatic detail. Hall artfully mixes a heaping dose of comedy, a dollop of sentimentality, and a dash of social commentary to create a rich and satisfying theater experience. The play with direction by Steve H. Broadnax III sometimes drifts into broad and formulaic situation-comedy mode, but the actors skillfully inject the characters, who in lesser hands could be played as discomforting stereotypes, with complex humanity.

At the play's center is a gay couple, Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) and Dwayne (Korey Jackson), who live in Memphis, Tennessee. Cordell, the mastermind behind the hot-wing enterprise, has recently left his wife and two sons to live with Dwayne, a hotel manager and unredeemable workaholic. They are joined by their friends Big Charles (Nicco Annan), a barber with a basketball obsession, and his campy friend Isom (Sheldon Best), who punctuates every sentence with a snap, a swivel, or "biiiiiitch." The four men form the New Wing Order, and as a team will participate in the annual tradition to crown this year's new, as the men say, "Hot Wang Kang."

The dynamics of the group are tested with the arrival of EJ (Cecil Blutcher), Dwayne's nephew who aims to move in with his gay uncles. Cordell is deeply opposed to the idea because the young man stole money during his last visit. EJ also seems to be headed for a life of crime like his ne'er-do-well father TJ (Eric B. Robinson, Jr.), who gets by hustling, dealing and pimping. Dwayne, however, assumes culpability for the circumstances surrounding the death of his sister, EJ's mother, and risks wrecking his current relationship to atone for his guilt. As the men sauté, season, and stir the wing ingredients, they must additionally confront issues associated with fatherhood and evolving definitions of family.

Running nearly two and a half hours, the play arrives a little overdone. There are a lot of laughs, though, and it was extremely gratifying to be part of an audience that was clearly having a great time with the plot's twists, turns, and comic hijinks. As Isom, Best earns the biggest reactions, and as imagined by Hall, the fabulous, over-the-top performance and decidedly un-PC flamboyance make him a direct descendant of Emory from The Boys in the Band and Jack from "Will and Grace." In this context, and in the play's diverse representation of gay and straight African-American men, it works.

Image 2: Eric B. Robinson, Jr.
Photo by Monique Carboni
The other actors are equally strong. Jeanlouis and Jackson make for a moving couple, and Annan provides a grounded center as the prototypical African-American barber as therapist. As the straight and street-raised father and son, Robinson and Blutcher find the right amount of poignance without resorting to far-fetched sappiness.

The design team helps establish the socio-economic world of the play and its alternating comic and dramatic tones. Michael Carnahan's set effectively demarcates the various rooms and outside spaces of a comfortable middle-class home with numerous places for characters to conveniently eavesdrop (the working kitchen is every foodie's dream). The lighting by Alan C. Edwards includes numerous fade-outs and cross-fades, which contribute to the feeling of watching a television show. Emilio Sosa's costumes are often quite witty, especially in the tacky design for the New Wing Order's team t-shirts (and hilariously repurposed by Isom).

Over the past few seasons, an impressive number of provocative and important works by black writers have been produced. Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview, Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play, and Aleshea Harris' What to Send Up When It Goes Down are just a few examples that have presented no-holds-barred depictions of race in twenty-first-century United States. Hall's The Hot Wing King does not push the boundaries of theatrical form and style in ways that other shows have, but it is certainly a viable contender. In its unabashed treatment of sexuality, masculinity and race, it is a play to be applauded and savored.

The Hot Wing King
Through March 22, 2020
Signature Theatre, Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: