“Spicy. Cajun. Alfredo. With Bourbon Infused. Crumbled. Bacon” is the hoped-for path to victory for the pivotal Memphis cooking competition in award-winning playwright Katori Hall’s uplifting The Hot Wing King, where comedy and drama deftly converge. Strained relationships, personal despair and camaraderie among gay and straight black men are all dramatized in this rewarding contemporary work that has echoes of the wit and pathos of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band.
Cordell is an altruistic overworked hotel manager. His partner Dwayne is an unemployed former FedEx manager who relocated from St. Louis, leaving behind a wife and two grown children. They met five years ago at Big Charles’ barbershop. Big Charles is at their house with his partner Isom to assist with the preparations for the next day’s big chicken wing contest. Dwyane has previously won runner-up citations and hopes to win the grand prize with his new recipe. Also involved are Cordell’s troubled 16-year-old nephew EJ, and EJ’s widowed larcenous father TJ.
Ms. Hall tenderly delineates each of these humane characters with perfection. Hall’s gorgeous dialogue is a compendium of punchy lingo, colloquialisms and everyday realism. Her command of structure is impeccable as the events unfold with force, suspense and insight over two grandly performed acts.
Toussaint Jeanlouis as Cordell and Korey Jackson as Dwayne both offer compelling, charming and complex characterizations. The palpable romantic and personal chemistry between Mr. Jeanlouis and Mr. Jackson is a great asset. The physically imposing Nicco Annan’s Big Charles is a delightful combination of bluster, wisdom and candor. As the shade-throwing screaming queen Isom, the animated Sheldon Best is mostly hilarious, sometimes poignant and always fascinating. Mr. Best gets tremendous comic mileage out of stirring a pot of hot sauce while seasoning it. Beautifully delivering a powerful speech about the psychological aftereffects of witnessing his mentally unstable mother shot to death by the police, is a highlight of youthful Cecil Blutcher’s touching and searing performance as EJ. The quietly charismatic Eric B. Robinson Jr. creates a marvelous portrait of a loveable rogue as the downtrodden TJ.
Director Steve H. Broadnax III’s sharp staging contains some neat dance and fight bits that all realize Hall’s vision. Scenic designer Michael Carnahan’s artfully framed two-level ordinary house set depicts various rooms and most crucially the kitchen, as well as the nearby patio, all with visual achievement. Alan C. Edwards’ lighting design adroitly varies according to the moods and actions. Sound designers Luqman Brown and Robert Kaplowitz’s sparkling efforts render the musical interludes and effects with flair. From Isom’s Gucci bag to the crimson cooking team shirts, costume designer Emilio Sosa injects stylish flourishes amidst the individualized athleticwear and street clothes.
The Hot Wing King’s accomplished depth continues to substantiate Hall’s preeminence as a leading playwright.
The Hot Wing King (through March 11, 2020)
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission