The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 22, $35-$55
Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King is a tantalizingly spicy, robust and savory contemporary comedy that sticks to your ribs like only the best, well, hot wings. The play, which opened tonight at the Signature, has a familiar setup — a group of friends and family trying to win a cooking contest — but fresh ingredients and high style take these hot wings to the next temperature level. In Memphis, Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) is getting ready to marinate 280 pounds of chicken for an annual hot wing contest, confident that he has a good chance of winning the $5,000 prize this year with a new recipe. Two months prior, he left his wife, kids, and job in St. Louis to be with Dwayne (Korey Jackson), an efficient and pragmatic hotel manager. Cordell’s prepping for the contest with his special team, the New Wing Order, which consists of him, Dwayne, the fabulously swishy Isom (Sheldon Best), and the basketball-loving Big Charles (Nicco Annan); the latter two men had hooked up once but now mostly poke fun at each other. Meanwhile, Cordell’s been frustrated by his lack of professional success since coming to Memphis, so the contest has become a benchmark for him. The Anchor Bar in Buffalo might claim that hot wings were invented there in 1964, but Cordell argues that his secret family recipe dates back to 1808.
“I ain’t move all the way down from St. Louis to be left in the house every chance he get,” Cordell says about Dwayne. Big Charles replies, “Number one, St. Louis ain’t all the way from nowhere. Two, this big old castle y’all done got fuh yuh self ain’t necessarily a cage, Cordell.” Cordell: “I gave up a lot for this. For him.” Big Charles: “And for yourself. You ain’t living a lie no more. Shackled by somebody else’s expectations of you.” Cordell: “Oh, I’m still shackled. Vanessa still ain’t signed them papers.”
Everything is proceeding as scheduled until the drug-dealing TJ (Eric B. Robinson Jr.), Dwayne’s former brother-in-law (Dwayne’s sister tragically died), stops by to leave a package for his son, sixteen-year-old EJ (Cecil Blutcher), who soon arrives himself with two bags of clothing. The teen is looking for a place to stay, throwing a wrench into Cordell’s intensely managed strategy to make the wings. “Just know that when that bell ring we all gone be led by God’s will cause He gone guide us through the sauce and the fire for that whippin’ and whippin’ and whippin’,” Cordell says early on, but the Lord might have other plans.
Hall, whose previous plays include Our Lady of Kibeho and Hurt Village as part of her Signature residency and The Mountaintop and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical on Broadway (Hall wrote the book), was inspired to write The Hot Wing King by her brother’s relationship with his male partner and the real hot-wing festival held annually in her hometown of Memphis. Her dialogue is slick and smart (“I can smell shade a mile away — I’m a walking umbrella,” the gossipmongering Isom says), moving at an infectious velocity that practically sings; you might not understand all the colloquialisms, but they reverberate like music.
The show is not specifically about gay men, or black men, or gay black men; it’s about four friends coming together to reach a goal, attempting to fight off various obstacles that are out of their control. Director Steve H. Broadnax III (The Hip Hop Project, Blood at the Root) keeps it all hopping on Michael Carnahan’s set, a comfy house with a living room, kitchen, upstairs bedroom, and outdoor basketball hoop. There are no women to be found here; this is a bunch of guys, superbly played by an outstanding ensemble cast that makes you want to hang with them as they goof around, needle one another, and, in the case of Cordell and Dwayne, explore their deepening but still new love.
The show continues through March 22 at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre; on Fridays and Saturdays, the Signature is serving Memphis-style wings (both chicken and vegan, with house beer); if you eat twenty in one sitting, your photo will be added to a lobby display so you can become a “Hot Wang Kang” yourself. “Everything always a contest with you,” Big Charles says to Cordell. But isn’t that true of all of us?