Review: THE HOT WING KING at Studio Theatre

A production to treasure.

By: Jul. 05, 2022
Review: THE HOT WING KING at Studio Theatre

The feelings and attachments of men, whether gay or straight, as they fight for self-respect and survival in a harsh world are portrayed in playwright Katori Hall's Pulitzer-Prize winning play The Hot Wing King. The compromises, commitments, camaraderie, and fractious relationships of a non-traditional family are explored with immediacy and sophisticated insight by Ms. Hall. Like all superbly written plays, one is continually taken by surprise as the play develops and nothing is as expected. The writing here is on the caliber of playwrights Annie Baker or August Wilson.

Raucous banter, competitive urges, and an unsentimental yet endearing feeling of creating a family amidst the demands of the outside world ensues as the Memphis Hot Wing competition approaches. In this tight cast of six, the central character Cordell (Brian Marable) has just moved to Memphis to live with the other leading character-- his boyfriend Dwayne (Blake Morris). Two friends arrive, the talkative Isom (Michael Kevin Darnall) and the down-to-earth Big Charles (Bjorn DuPaty) who embellish the proceedings with their singular humor and contrasting personalities.

Complications further develop as Dwayne's nephew Everett "E.J." (Derrick Sanders Ⅲ) arrives to help his uncle with the preparing of the chicken wings for the competition and he wants to move in permanently, --to the consternation of his uncle's partner and his father T.J. (JaBen Early). I will not reveal any more of the play's developments as it would ruin the element of spontaneity and quicksilver transitions in the playwright's superb writing.

The events of the play congeal seamlessly under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax Ⅲ. The lines between comedy and drama are intermixed just as in real life. I often felt as if vignettes from real life were unspooling on stage without any preconceived or pretentious intrusions. The banter and shared laughter and sorrow of men --who are African American, gay, or straight, -- is presented as the coping mechanism in the process of fighting for love, acceptance, and commitment in the milieu of brotherhood and fraternity.

The zeal for the perfect barbecue sauce plays out as the central external plot ingredient as the very human secrets, yearnings and relationships sizzle and percolate as the real drama of the play. Defense mechanisms and fraternal banter envelop the brittle veneer that is the poignant and very real essence of human relationships.

The acting plays individually but never detracts from the ensemble feel. Brian Marable (Cordell) performs with a deft concentration that embodies his character with an idealistic drive and determination. Mr. Marable's scene with Everett as he accuses him of disrespect is a highlight of the play. His scenes of cooking mania as he whips up his special sauce for the contest are delightfully paced with superb comic timing. Shoutout to cooking coach China "Chef Chi" Adderley.

Blake Morris (Dwayne) possesses a commanding stage presence as the uncle fighting to take care of his nephew and the partner who wants a strong commitment from his partner. Morris's scenes with Cordell and with his brother -in-law as they discuss who is better suited for raising Everett, are strong and well-played.

The character of Everett is disarmingly played by Derrick Sanders Ⅲ with just the right admixture of knowingness and vulnerability. Mr. Sanders "crowning" moment near the end of the play is memorable.

The flamboyant character of Isom is engagingly played by Michael Kevin Darnall. Mr. Darnall's scene wherein he admits of tampering with the barbecue sauce is pricelessly witty and comic.

Bjorn DuPaty plays the role of the solid, steady and reliable Big Charles with natural acting ability and he is especially skilled in his scenes interacting with the character of Cordell.

JaBen Early delivers a very sharp performance as T.J. Though this character has seen the rough side of life, Mr. Early lets you see the will to survive underneath the tough veneer.
Aside from the communal aspects of cooking, the playfully competitive sport of basketball is nicely displayed with a basketball court designed by set designer Michael Carnahan. (Credit should also be given to the Howard University Women's Basketball Team which served as the basketball coach). The scenic design includes a well-designed large kitchen with many accessories, a bedroom, and a living room. The feeling of a comfortable home is logistically and beautifully displayed.

Sound Designer Curtis Craig should be commended ---there was a wonderfully fresh chorus line as the men moved to the beat in the song - "Never Too Much" by Luther Vandross. Moves were stylized and in syncopation.

Costume Designer Ivania Stack and Lighting Designer Alan C. Edwards did wonderful work that was appropriate for the mood of the play.

The play often reminded me of a reunion play like The Boys in the Band or That Championship Season and it also had elements that were much more compartmentalized in the much-ballyhooed Take Me Out. The miracle of this play by the brilliant Katori Hall is that it is a work that combines all the various layers and themes into one powerhouse of a unified play. Studio Theatre and Director Steve H. Broadnax Ⅲ have given us a production to treasure. One leaves the play with a feeling of the demands of survival in a harsh world but, concurrently, with a feeling of the euphoric elation that is possible in commitment and community.

Running Time: Two Hours and twenty minutes with one fifteen-minute intermission

The Hot Wing King runs through July 31,2022 at the Studio Theatre located at 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005.

Photo Credit: L-R Derrick Sanders III, Michael Kevin Darnall, Bjorn DuPaty, Brian Marable, and Blake Morris in The Hot Wing King. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

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