Do I have good news for ya’ll! I was just beating myself up because I’ve been busy this week and didn’t get around to telling you about The Hot Wing King and my first sentence was going to be, “Hurry up, you only have another week to see it.” BUT those kind souls at Studio Theatre, knowing*, I am sure, that I was having a time, did both of us a favor and extended that run! It’s now on until August 7. But still, do not delay! Go get those tickets, find your metro pass and your pal with the sweet DC apartment, and plan your life around seeing this show.
Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King, directed beautifully at Studio Theatre by Stephen H. Broadnax III, is one of the most joyful things I’ve seen on stage in ages. It tells the story of Darnell (Brian Marable), who has left his wife and college-aged sons to move in with his long-time secret lover, Dwayne (Blake Morris), in Memphis. Darnell is struggling with guilt over leaving his family, and with hopelessness about finding work in a new city. But one thing sparks his joy: the prospect of leading the New Wing Order to victory in the city’s annual hot wing competition. Their friends Isom (Michael Kevin Darnall) and Big Charles (Bjorn DuPaty) come to town to help them prep for the big day. This is the year they’ll go home with the coveted trophy.
BUT (always) complications ensue. Dwayne has a family emergency involving his brother-in-law, TJ (JaBen Early), and has to invite his nephew, EJ (Derrick Sanders III) to join them. Isom messes with some spices and makes the wings deadly. Hilarity ensues, etc.
I want to pause here and say that this was a perfectly constructed play, and I mean that as an immense compliment. Each of the plot lines moves forward in concert with each other, seamlessly progressing, getting passed from character to character, but never having a clear sense of hand off (“This scene is not about the A plot”). It’s a perfectly integrated, multi-layered plot. All of the characters care about all of the stories. The craft is so satisfying, like watching a gymnast pull off a perfect floor routine. You know you couldn’t do it, but you just want to bathe in the perfection. The only other script of hers that I’m familiar with is The Mountaintop, but she has written a lot and I want to read all of it.
One thing I love about this play is that it does something I’ve been struggling to communicate to people when I’m looking for Silk Moth plays. I want plays that are not ABOUT some big social issue. I want them to show how big social issues impact people’s lives, but I want the plays to be ABOUT something else. I produced a play ABOUT the AIDS crisis when I was 15 or so, and although that’s a project that is very dear to my heart, it’s the last ABOUT play I ever was involved with (I think the more common term is “message play,” but my plays have a message! The message is usually something like, “Don’t give up hope, it’s our only rebellion,” rather than “Don’t do drugs,” which was the message of a play I saw at a high school theatre competition that turned me off of the whole genre). The Hot Wing King definitely has plot points related to homophobia, racism, police murdering Black people, drug dealing, financial trouble—the list goes on, and many plays have been written about each of these issues. This play does not ignore them or mention them in passing. They are important pieces of these men’s lives, and they are core to the plot as it unfolds. But what is the play about? Joy. Love. Family. Teamwork. And hot wings.
The Black queer men in my life are among the most joyful people I know. They might not always be happy, but they are joyful. It’s a hard-won joy, and they live it to their core. But how often do you see this on stage? How often do you see Black men, queer or not, laughing together, singing, teasing each other, dropping puns and howling with laughter from their bellies? How often do you see a play where the characters are all Black people, and it’s not about (ABOUT) pain? Not often enough! These men felt real to me. They reminded me of people I know, and love, and I loved them for it.
Speaking of feeling like I knew them, let’s spare a prayer for that SET. OMG That set. The design, by Michael Carnahan, was intricate in its detail, fully recreating a functioning kitchen, as well as a split level bit for a living room and a bedroom, and an exterior (an alley?) with a basketball hoop and bench. Folks who know my work well will be shocked to hear me say this, but sometimes it is fun to see a set with a lot of detail and a ton going on. There was so much to look at! I noticed the rainbow canisters on the shelves and wished I could read the notes on the fridge. The kitchen felt familiar, and it told me everything I needed to understand about the person who owned the house and the people who were popping in and out.
The lighting design (by Alan C. Edwards) did a lot to make the set work, both in terms of shifting focus from one area of the stage to another, and integrating practicals to make the space feel like a home. Edwards did a beautiful job of using color to tell the story, too, using subtle changes in warmth to reflect the characters’ shifting relationships through the story.
Ivania Stack’s costume design was gorgeously specific to each character. The second I saw each man, I had a solid sense of who he was. There was no pastiche of Black gayness here, but a specificity that followed each character through his story. If she’d given me drawings for an imaginary fourth act, I would know which character was supposed to inhabit each one. That actually played into one of the most charming moments of the play: at the end, dead-beat dad TJ walks off wearing Dwayne’s favorite cashmere lounge wear, extremely out-of-character for him, and maybe a sign of change.
The direction in this piece is strong and clear. Broadnax respects and follows Hall’s rhythmic and poetic language, echoing it in movement patterns that embody and operationalize her words. I have extreme admiration for dialect coach Caroline Stefanie Clay. These guys all sounded like they came from Memphis, and that kind of consistency across a large group is difficult. I could hear her work in every word. I also loved the intimacy direction (Raja Benz); the actors seemed so comfortable with their own bodies and with each other. There was no making out for the hell of it or to fill time or to titillate; every choice advanced the story and deepened the relationships.
Robert Hofler, writing for The Wrap, asserts that “Katori Hall has written two new plays, a comedy and a drama, and put them under one title.” I strongly disagree. Maybe I’m too steeped in my Shakespeare background, but I’ve stopped believing in genre much at all. What makes something a comedy or a tragedy? Simply the slice of life that we’re looking at.
Chaos -> order? Comedy.
Order -> chaos -> new order? Tragedy.
That’s Aristotle, but it shows up in other forms, like the old “equation”: “Tragedy + time = comedy.” The best playwrights know how to do both at once.
In form and slice-of-time, The Hot Wing King is a comedy that has some bits that are sad or challenging. But we could imagine winding the clock back, and picking up a play that ends a few months before this one begins, with the same characters, the same balance of laughs and tears, and it would be, formally, a tragedy. The best directors don’t get too wound up in which of these big buckets they’re working in. They play each moment for its truth. Sometimes the truth is funny. Sometimes truth hurts. But what makes it a comedy or a tragedy is just what is happening when the lights go down.
Broadnax gets this, and it’s one of the things that makes this play work so well. (The Pulitzer people got it too). He believes in the joy of the play, and never lets us lose that thread, even when Dwayne and Darnell’s relationship falters, even when we learn detail after detail about the tragedies this family has suffered.
He clearly also communicated it to the actors, because they all stayed grounded in their moments, playing the laughs as big as they could, and offering tenderness and vulnerability in the scenes where the laughs are scarce. They were so grounded and honest, I felt like I knew each of these men. Their connection and care for each other was apparent in every beat. Darnall and DuPaty, playing characters who had most of the funny business, most of the time, were nevertheless so grounded that their more serious moments just felt like a funny friend showing a bit more of his soul, not like a switch to a different person.
I also just want to note that Broadnax had all these tiny pieces of the director’s craft that I think most people wouldn’t notice, but I loved to see. For example, very early in the play, Darnell juices a lemon and rinses the juicer in the sink, for apparently no reason. I clocked that, because the only reason I could guess at was that Broadnax needed us to know that the sink had running water. Sure enough, the climactic scene had water spraying everywhere. I felt like this was another way that Broadnax responded to what Hall was creating. The script is full of Chekhov’s guns, and watching them go off is a big part of the pleasure of this show. So Broadnax dropped this one in. It fit with the world and with the mode of storytelling.
You can read many people more famous than I am gush about this show all over the Washington press. Those who didn’t love it mostly complained that it’s basically a sitcom. Sure, of course it is. And if you think Katori Hall wrote a sitcom by accident, you are very wrong. She took the form of a sitcom and did something gorgeous and interesting with it. And also—newsflash—people like sitcoms! They’re very popular, and for good reason.
The only thing I don’t like about sitcoms, or about plays in the sitcom mode, is that they are usually sloppy as hell with language. But Hall is a poet, and her word choice, her rhythm and rhetoric, are a tour-de-force.
Seriously, go see this. I hope you love every minute.
* They barely know I exist and definitely did not adjust their schedule for my convenience. But they did do it to give you more chances to see this show!