Review: “Hot Wing King” presents gay Black experience with hope, joy and spice

Writer-director Katori Hall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning hot Wing King, onstage at the Alliance Theater through March 5, is so damn good. Go see it.

There’s more to be said than that, certainly. But that’s the main takeaway. This play is a superb achievement. It’s daring, artistically bold, relevant, hilarious and original, and it is not to be missed. It is, among many things, a celebration of Black joy, a showcase for fantastic Black actors and gloriously, unapologetically queer.

It will also make you hungry for some lemon pepper wings and have you add Luther Vandross to your Spotify playlists. But those side effects are incidental.

The Hot Wing King gives us likable, fully developed characters whose conflicts emerge from emotional truth, rather than contrived villains or outside threats. It does not dwell in trauma, though it acknowledges that the Black gay man’s experience in society is uniquely fraught. It’s honest, sexy, extremely funny and feels deeply romantic.

When you consider how difficult that is to do, the play’s successes become that much more impressive.

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Left to right, Bjorn Dupaty, Calvin Thompson, Nicco Annan, and Armand Fields in “Hot Wing King”

The story centers on Cordell (Bjorn Dupaty), a culinary genius whose specialty-flavor chicken wings are set to win the top prize at a Memphis food festival during the weekend if his team — nicknamed the New Wing Order — follows his very specific, time -intensive recipes. Cordell is prickly and blunt, but his enthusiasm and passion for chicken wings is infectious.

Apart from his mastery of the wings, Cordell is very insecure about a number of things in his life. He recently moved to Memphis from St. Louis. Louis, leaving his wife and grown children, to be with his boyfriend Dwayne (Calvin Thompson). While Cordell is jobless, Dwayne is essentially the sole breadwinner of the household.

Though Dwayne tries to be reassuring, the power dynamic it takes toll on the relationship. Beyond that, Dwayne is still mourning his sister’s tragic death, and he’s trying to provide stability to his nephew EJ (Myles Alexander Evans). EJ’s father TJ (Jay Jones), a kind and streetwise grifter, provides for his son and is there for him, but Dwayne is uncertain about TJ’s influence.

Also helping Cordell in the kitchen that weekend are Big Charles (Nicco Annan) and Isom (Armand Fields), his friends with gigantic personalities who alternate between fighting and flirting. The duo mean well, but they keep “stirring the pot” regarding Dwayne and Cordell’s household drama, instead of stirring the pots of wing sauce that demanded their attention.

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Tension rises between Bjorn Dupaty, left, and Myles Alexander Evans on set of “Hot Wing King.”

The vibe is fun, rather than intense, and the show builds genuine suspense into whether the wings will be properly prepared in time for the festival. And even though the script follows a linear structure with plot beats occurring almost like clockwork, there’s a lot here that’s unexpected, and it never feels predictable. It’s just deeply satisfying.

The ensemble is also uniformly solid and has terrific chemistry. Dupaty and Thompson create a couple that are believably passionate, yet their love goes deeper than sexual attraction. Their arguments sting. Their flirtations are fiery. And the characters are fully drawn individuals.

Thompson, in particular, has to play many different notes as Dwayne, the most buttoned-up conservative character in the show. He must be loving, supportive, adult and mournful, often in the same scene — and he also has to sing. It’s terrific work.

Fields, given the most comic relief role, turns Isom into more than a stereotypical queen by giving the character an appealing charm and wit, even when fussy or wreaking havoc.

Annan’s Big Charles comes across as wise and comforting, delivering truths about the Black, gay experience that resonate for the audience as well as the characters. In lesser hands, these could feel like platitudes. But Annan, who originated the role off-Broadway and works regularly with Hall on the TV series P-Valleyinfuses the character with heart.

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Myles Alexander Evans, left, and Jay Jones share a father son moment in “Hot Wing King.”

EJ, the moodiest, most troubled character in the show, could seem like an outlier within this story. Yet Hall’s script gives him moments of levity and definition that make EJ more than just a perpetual, predictable obstacle to Cordell’s goals. Though the tension between the two characters is palpable at times, Evans also plays up EJ’s joy and desire to belong, and the performance works well.

Despite having less time onstage than others in the first act, Jones steals scenes throughout the second act as TJ interacts with his son and brother-in-law. And there are moments when his male bravado and street cred get upended in unpredictable ways.

This script contains familiar beats, yet it heads in directions you won’t expect. Even when the crises come, they don’t play out with weighty devastation. Instead, the overall tone is triumphant, with characters finding hope through pain. It side steps trauma. It doesn’t dwell in emotional or physical violence. It spares its audience that. This show feels like a gift.

The Alliance production is also a tremendous technical achievement. The set is designed by Michael Carnahan, who designed the original production off-Broadway in 2020 before the pandemic cut the run short. It is just amazing, featuring an ornately decorated house and a driveway basketball court. The lighting design from Mike Wood and costume design from Dede Ayite are even full of welcome touches.

Though it’s only February, The Hot Wing King is one of the best plays you’ll see this year.


Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL Since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theater in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for the Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

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