By the midpoint of Katori Hall’s 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning dramedy The Hot Wing King (★★★☆☆), now at Studio Theatre, everyone in the house, from the characters onstage to the crowd in their seats, is well aware of the chief ingredients and spices that titular chef, Cordell (Brian Marable), plans to use for his entries in the all-important Memphis Hot Wangs contest.
So when someone other than Cordell takes it upon himself to secretly spice up the recipe, the collective gasp of horror in anticipation of this culinary transgression ripples through the audience like a shockwave. Then, as an unsuspecting taste-tester prepares to take a bite, comes the collective recoil and hilarious release of watching him experience the offending wing.
A play is definitely onto something when you can feel the entire audience physically react in accordance to the circumstances depicted onstage. Those are the moments, when the whole audience senses together, that nothing lives like live theater. Director Steve H. Broadnax and his tight ensemble command that level of engagement throughout a lively, laugh-filled first act.
The tautness flags as Hall’s script sprawls in its reach to address the minefield of societal issues affecting the lives of the various Black men, both queer and straight, portrayed in the play. Struggles with mental health, housing, crime, drugs, unemployment, homophobia, divorce, and police brutality — directly or implicitly — shape the landscape that these characters traverse.
Yet, amateur chef Cordell and his overworked hotel manager partner Dwayne (Blake Morris) — hailing from different backgrounds, and headed not always in the same direction — are committed to making a home together. They’re starting on somewhat shaky ground, since Cordell left his wife and two college-age sons in St. Louis to move into Dwayne’s house in Memphis.
And they’re both having a hard time working out their roles in the turbulent life of Dwayne’s teenage nephew, EJ (Derrick Sanders III), who lost his mom to police violence. A smart boy bouncing from home to home, he seems one bad decision away from following his dad TJ (JaBen Early) down an unlawful path.
Add a dash of Dwayne’s coupled friends Isom (Michael Kevin Darnall) and Big Charles (Bjorn DuPaty), who bicker playfully while literally stirring the pot, and The Hot Wing King piles more hot topics on its menu than an entire season of Good Times.
While Broadnax and company lead us to absorb the intersecting web of concerns facing Dwayne, Cordell, EJ, and the teen’s flawed but loving dad, few of their dramas come across with the persuasive specificity of Cordell’s campaign to be crowned Hot Wangs king. One that does is Dwayne and Cordell’s ongoing, and uneasy, transition from long-distance, illicit fling to live-in lovers and possibly surrogate parents to a troubled youth.
As two men certain of their feelings for each other, but uncertain how to occupy space together as a gay couple, Marable and Morris bring palpable conviction to Cordell’s and Dwayne’s respective points of contention. And they relay an endearing physical ease and affection that earns support and understanding for their pairing.
Darnall and DuPaty offer a vaguer impression of what sort of couple Isom and Big Charles are meant to be, and of what they do or care about beyond the walls of scenic designer Michael Carnahan’s impressively detailed, split-level take on Dwayne’s comfy home.
Darnall does find the right measure of sass to deliver Isom’s frequent come-ons and comebacks, amid the play’s steady stream of solid jokes and comic motifs. Tasked with carrying the more “serious drama” on EJ and TJ’s plate, Sanders and Early are fine, if a bit stilted in their portrayals.
Their father-son, “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” lesson-learning is sitcom familiar, as opposed to the more intriguing exploration, through Cordell and Dwayne, of what happens after a DL hookup begets a messy divorce and a newly committed relationship.
That’s where the story really heats up. Like Cordell’s inadvertently adulterated sauce, all of The Hot Wing King‘s ingredients don’t blend perfectly, but this prize-winner excites the palate with flavors that truly kick.
The Hot Wing King runs through July 31, at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $50 to $95. Call 202-332-3300, or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.
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