'The Hot Wing King' satisfies without scorching, like theatrical comfort food

Exuberant Writers Theatre play sticks to the familiar and the feel-good in its thoughtful consideration of Black male masculinity.

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Joseph Anthony Byrd (from left), Jabari Khaliq, Breon Arzell, Thee Ricky Harris and Jos N. Banks star in "The Hot Wing King" at Writers Theatre.

Joseph Anthony Byrd (from left), Jabari Khaliq, Breon Arzell, Thee Ricky Harris and Jos N. Banks star in “The Hot Wing King” at Writers Theatre.

Michael Brosilow

In “The Hot Wing King,” a group of gay African American men in Memphis prepare for a cooking competition where they’re determined to claim victory for their Spicy Cajun Alfredo wings with bourbon-infused bacon crumbles.

The recipe sounds yummy, and you can get a pleasing whiff of the food onstage at one point. It also sounds like a collection of familiar ingredients mixed into something original, while retaining that sense of familiarity essential for comfort food.

That’s an ideal description for “The Hot Wing King” as a play too. It’s filled with the familiar, stirred into something novel — a thoughtful, gentle consideration of Black male masculinity and fatherhood with a focus on gay men. It’s comfort theater — a bit funny, a bit dramatic, unabashed in the positivity of its portrayals, determined to be feel-good.

'The Hot Wing King'

When: Through July 21

Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe

Tickets: $35-$90

Info: writerstheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

This play, by Katori Hall (best known for her works “The Mountaintop,” about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the book to the Broadway musical about Tina Turner) opened in February 2020 in New York and was shut down due to the pandemic soon after opening. When it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2021, comfort was perhaps what the world craved the most.

Even the set, designed in this solid Writers Theater production by Lauren M. Nichols, looks inviting. It’s the middle-class home of the wing chef Cordell (Breon Arzell) and his boyfriend Dwayne (Jos N. Banks). Cordell was married with two kids when he met Dwayne and fell deeply in love. After years of constant visiting from St. Louis, Cordell has recently moved to Memphis and into the house, but he’s also a bit insecure about his level of financial dependence on Dwayne after negotiating his divorce and giving up his job. Dwayne, meanwhile, can be a workaholic at his hotel management job, and is still recovering from the death of his troubled sister two years earlier.

They’re joined in the frenetic preparation of hundreds of pounds of wings by their friends: the flamboyant Isom (Joseph Anthony Byrd) and the basketball-obsessed Big Charles (understudy Darryl D’Angelo Jones in the performance I saw). Together, they’re the New Wing Order, determined to beat the visiting and oft-winning team of Kansas City barbecue-ists.

The play can be easygoing and exuberant, a depiction of gay male camaraderie that’s modern in its non-concern with outside judgment and its countering of some stereotypes without avoiding them altogether. There are still some closet issues with family but not because of shame; Isom’s campiness also comes with confident talk of church, Big Charles can love sports with zero self-consciousness. There’s even a basketball court in the driveway just outside the kitchen, and these gay men shoot hoops without comment.

The light comedy about cooking is eventually joined by light drama about family. Since Dwayne’s sister died, her teenage son Everett (Jabari Khaliq) has been sleeping on couches in the homes of whatever girlfriend his father TJ (Kevin Tre’von Patterson) happens to be with. Dwayne wants Everett to move in, but Cordell, who has issues with his own kids, isn’t so sure. TJ wants to be a better father, but also can’t escape the life of small-time crime.

Director Lili-Anne Brown finds the right tone for the piece, and the performances infuse the right energy and capture the right sense of realness that both is and isn’t authentic. This is a world of hard choices that are solvable, prejudices that can be tamed, insecurities managed through supportive friendships. The sense of community is believable and warm and also idealized. People apologize for their flaws, and hurt feelings lead to hugs. Competition is all-involving, but winning isn’t everything.

On the continuum of plays that depict the world as it should be to the world the way it is, “The Hot Wing King” nods to the latter but lives in the former.

It’s cheerful more than funny, sassy more than challenging, diverting more than suspenseful. It’s a nice, comfortable world to spend some time in, and I left disappointed only that there weren’t some tasty wings to eat in the lobby.

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