Review: THE HOT WING KING at Writers Theatre

This production of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winner runs through July 21.

By: Jul. 02, 2024
Review: THE HOT WING KING at Writers Theatre
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About forty-five minutes into the first act of THE HOT WING KING, your nostrils will flare, and you’ll start involuntarily sniffing the air. “Surely,” you think, “they aren’t really cooking those wings onstage right now. Surely those are props cooked in advance. The steam coming from the pot is a practical effect. Right?” Then you watch the actors pick up the freshly seared wings, dunk them in sauce, and devour them with unashamed pleasure in between playfully harsh jokes. It’s a moment that encapsulates all the best elements of Writers Theatre’s latest production, an impressive commitment to craft and community that invites audiences to reflect on questions of masculinity, race, and responsibility that stimulate the brain while tickling the funny bone. This 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winner runs through July 21 at Writers’ facility in Glencoe.

Written by acclaimed playwright Katori Hall (THE MOUNTAINTOP, TINA: THE Tina Turner MUSICAL), THE HOT WING KING finds Cordell (Breon Arzell) once again preparing to compete in a Memphis chicken wing cookoff that could win him $5,000 and provide him with financial stability following his recent divorce. He’s helped throughout the evening by his boyfriend Dwayne (Jos N. Banks) and their friends Isom (Joseph Anthony Byrd) and Big Charles (THEE Ricky Harris), both of whom do as much taste testing as they do cooking prep. This relative peace is thrown into doubt, though, with the unexpected arrival of Dwayne’s nephew Everett (Jabari Khaliq), who’s running away from a seemingly oppressive father and a ghost from his past. The play’s suspense relies as much on how Cordell and Dwayne will adjust to this new member of their household as it does on who will ultimately win the competition.

Director Lili-Anne Brown finds the perfect balance of pacing and emotion in this piece, a difficult feat for a play that demands equal attention be paid to its most comedic and dramatic of moments. Innuendos and roasts zing quickly across the house (a beautifully elaborate set by Lauren M. Nichols) like grease from a hot frying pan, building to a crescendo until a moment of truth and tension breaks through the surface. Arzell and Banks can take the time to work through their relationship problems precisely because they—and audiences—have earned the right to slow down and take stock of a relationship that isn’t as strong as it initially seems. Brown also excels at creating profoundly moving stage pictures that emphasize the play’s central themes, such as when Dwayne and his brother-in-law TJ (Kevin Tre’von Patterson) sigh as they collapse simultaneously into chairs in different rooms. Or when Cordell and Everett open up to one another during a pick-up basketball game. Brown has been quoted as saying that she’s been waiting for the chance to direct the play, and her passion for and deep attention to the script makes for a deliciously satisfying meal.

Critics have faulted Hall’s script for having some jarring shifts in tone from the comedic to the almost melodramatic, but the cast navigates every twist and turn of the play with sincerity and humanity. Arzell and Banks especially excel in this regard, conveying the tension at the heart of their relationship even as they tease one another over whose responsibility it is to water the wood chips. And Byrd and Harris milk every moment of comedic relief for all they’re worth. Byrd’s acrobatics over and across the couch whenever he feels slighted are as impressive as they are hilarious, and Harris delivers each line with the strength and self-assurance of a queer man who refuses to let the ignorance of the world drag him down. And while this core group of friends blends beautifully as an ensemble, each actor has their own moment to shine. Banks’s monologue about the loss of Dwayne’s sister is one of the production’s most wrenching scenes, reminding viewers that this play also explores how men and their identities are shaped by the women in—or out—of their lives.

An actor whose star is on an impressive ascent, Khaliq plays the teenage Everett with a bounce in his step and a palpable youthfulness. It’s always a challenge for adult actors to capture the essence of adolescence without resorting to parody, but Khaliq projects the confidence that comes from newfound independence, a quality that allows him to hold his own among the more seasoned members of the cast. As Everett’s well-intentioned but prickly father TJ, Patterson turns the play’s least sympathetic character into the one perhaps most deserving of grace. He conveys the character’s shift in attitude toward Dwayne and his friends more through what is unsaid than said, such as by carefully putting away his son’s clothes in Dwayne’s guest bedroom or giving Everett a strained but heartfelt goodbye embrace.

Writers Theatre’s HOT WING KING gives audiences a great meal to savor, from the sweet to the salty to the bitter and everything in between. It’s a fitting bookend to Braden Abraham’s first season as Writers’ artistic director and a testament to his and his artists’ commitment to exploring the many ways language unites disparate communities striving for connection.


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