The Hot Wing King, a tasty new work by Katori Hall at the Signature Theatre, comes in three flavors. As directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, it is a classic buddy comedy with friends and lovers involved in bouts of physical tomfoolery and good-natured ribbing. It is also a honey-glazed drama seasoned with uncertainty and dipped in guilt. And it is a hot take on sons and fathers, biological and otherwise, in black America, featuring a fiery Off-Broadway debut by Cecil Blutcher as a teenager looking for a means of escape from his down and out life.
For some playwrights, home is where their creative hearts dwell. August Wilson had Pittsburgh, Horton Foote had small-town Texas and for Hall, it’s her native Memphis. Where better to chronicle the struggles of a group of gay, black, middle-age, middle-class men who hide their feelings behind a giant batch of chicken wings? Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) is ringmaster of the New Wing Order, the small posse he has brought together to compete in the Memphis "Hot Wang Festival." It is the night before the grand event and the guys have assembled for an evening of prep work and bonding at Cordell’s home, which he lives in at the pleasure of his significant other, Dwayne (Korey Jackson). Club members include Big Charles (Nicco Annan), the neighborhood barber who brought Cordell and Dwayne together, and Isom (Sheldon Best), who plays the fool as well as he plays the piano.
It’s hot sauce meets The Big Chill for much of the first act, including an extended song and dance group performance of the Luther Vandross hit, "Never Too Much." Then slowly, but surely, the dramatic tension seeps in. Cordell, it turns out, has left his wife and two sons after coming to terms with his sexuality. And Dwayne is harboring a world of guilt connected to the death of his sister. When Dwayne brings his sister’s boy, Everett (Blutcher), to stay in the house, the two sacks of clothes he carries are not the only baggage to be dealt with. Everett’s thuggish father, TJ (Eric B. Robinson Jr.), is still in the mix, toting a load of bad influence. Between bites of bird, relationships are pushed to their limits, homophobic tendencies are exploded and, thanks to Blutcher’s strong interpretation, a boy’s tender heart bursts through a streetwise facade.
The rest of the cast, when not speaking with their mouths full, also turn in fine performances. Robinson Jr. makes TJ completely relatable. As Isom, Best is a first-rate clown who brings just the right level of pathos to the one moment when he lets down his guard. Annan’s big-hearted turn as Big Charles pivots from couch potato to sage. Jeanlouis makes palpable all the weight that is dragging Cordell down, from his imperfect love life to his failure at making good on his Georgetown degree. And Jackson is masterful in unmasking Dwayne, finding the vulnerability behind his seemingly successful life. Scenic designer Michael Carnahan has built them all a lovely sprawling house to play in. Laughs spill out in the kitchen, tears are hidden in the upstairs bedroom, and confrontations reach their peak on the driveway basketball court.
(Photo by Monique Carboni)
"Place six, highly individual and equally quarrelsome men in a small kitchen, and it’s inevitable that they’re going to make a mess, literal and otherwise. Yet while Katori Hall's The Hot Wing King has its problems, you’re unlikely to feel that having too many cooks on board is among them. On the contrary, this likable but lumpy production directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, which opened on Sunday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is never better than when its all-male ensemble is functioning as an awkward but interdependent unit — riffing with, scoring off and rubbing up against one another. They have that palpable, physical ease with one another, both contented and irritable, that comes from being part of a family."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Katori Hall has written two new plays, a comedy and a drama, and put them under one title. Even the direction, by Steve H. Broadnax III, and the scenic design, by Michael Carnahan, put that bifurcation in sharp focus in the Signature Theatre’s production of The Hot Wing King. Hall’s play opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center. The raucous comedy plays out center stage in the kitchen and living room, while the domestic drama is relegated to the far sides of the stage where a same-sex couple bickers in a bedroom (stage left) and a backyard (stage right). Anyone versed in Gay Theater 101 has seen both these plays before. Fortunately, the more easily digestible half takes place center stage in the kitchen."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap