Katori Hall is back in Memphis (well, her playwrighting is, anyway), and her work is as spicy and smoky as her hometown’s cuisine.
Hall’s new play, The Hot Wing King, now premiering at the Signature, finds the uncompromising writer returning to the setting of such plays as Hurt Village, Hoodoo Love, and The Mountaintop, which announced her to the world of theater as a playwright with great love for the pulsating rhythms of black southern life and language. She has at times found success with plays set elsewhere (Our Lady of Kibeho is set in Rwanda), but she is at her consistent best when channeling the city of Memphis to speak through her. In the life of her hometown, Hall finds complex, nuanced portraits of people struggling to get by while also working diligently to cultivate real joy in life. In this volatile union, Hall finds much to celebrate about her characters and their dogged struggles.
Opening in the home of Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) and Dwayne (Korey Jackson) on the eve of a major Memphis cookoff, The Hot Wing King takes place at the nexus of masculinity, sexuality, and domesticity. Cordell and Dwayne are a couple trying to make it after Cordell left (but has yet to divorce) his wife and two sons in St. Louis and moved south for Dwayne. On this particular night, they are joined by another male couple, Isom (Sheldon Best) and Big Charles (Nicco Annan), who fill out what Cordell has dubbed the New Wing Order, the team he has assembled to help him win first prize in the wing cookoff. Soon the evening’s activities will be interrupted by a visit from TJ (Eric B. Robinson Jr), Dwayne’s hustler brother-in-law, and then EJ (Cecil Blutcher), TJ’s 16-year-old son and EJ’s nephew whose presence Cordell sees as a threat to his plans for a fun weekend.
The plot develops in several avenues, both wing-related and not, but this play is ultimately less about what happens and more about how the people at its center struggle to grow into their own sustainable identities. Cordell has embraced his homosexuality, but still cannot tell his sons. Dwayne grows increasingly frustrated with Cordell’s lingering marriage while also battling guilt for the degree of responsibility he feels for his sister’s death. TJ tries to maintain the hardness of the street, but also wants to provide for EJ, who often finds himself couch-surfing in the homes of his basketball teammates. So the play asks a lot of questions of these characters, not all of which are united around some neatly constructed plot (the play at times feels a bit ungainly at nearly two-and-a-half hours), but in this way The Hot Wing King reflects Hall’s consistent fascination with how everyday people in trying circumstances get by day-to-day.
Under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, this cast finds exceeding life in their characters. The play is most interested in Cordell, who Jeanlouis shows to be beset by consistent angst. Even when leading his wing team in celebratory rituals, it is clear that the struggles of his family and relationship lie forebodingly just on the edge of his joy. Blutcher is another standout, arriving initially drenched in constructed teenage cool before allowing his character’s vulnerability to emerge and settle in with considerable nuance.
But the play is at its most exciting and engaging when Hall gives her characters the vibrant dialect of black Memphis. As in her play about two competing Memphis salons, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, which Hall says should be performed “in the roaring, heightened music of black beauty-shop banter,” this play finds its characters whipping language full of life and urgency around the house. By doing so, they are building community and sustaining it around shared expression. Broadnax gives his cast plenty of room to run with Hall’s language, and the actors give the banter fully charged breath. This only strengthens the quiet, tender moments when two characters come together in moments of intimacy or tension. Hall orchestrates the mood of her play with the ebb and flow of her language, and Broadnax deftly modulates that composition with his cast.
That all of this takes place on Michael Carnahan’s impressively efficient set in Signature’s small Griffin Theater underscores the production’s stress on the force of intimacy. Whether it is the recipe for a wing sauce, the responsibility to family, or the embrace and expression of sexual identity, Hall’s play forces its characters to work through a variety of pressures in often-heated close quarters. The play ends warmly, but not in a way that suggests all these concerns are settled, only that this particular group of characters is finding a way to face their challenges with shared strength and support.