“Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act.” — Joseph Beam
“As my mother said, ‘Love is not enough.'” — The character Isom in The Hot Wing King
“It takes a village.” — a popular saying among people of African heritage addressing the need for restoring a community.
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” — a traditional saying
In DC we have the privilege of having playwright Alan Sharpe regularly turning out plays about the lives of Black LGBTQ+ people (and how they are embedded in the larger Black community). But until his plays begin to receive wider attention, productions of stories about this demographic will probably continue to lack a certain awareness. Thank goodness, therefore, for The Hot Wing King, a play about Black men in which whiteness is not the unmentioned yet underlying cultural center.
Playwright Katori Hall gives us portraits of Black men loving Black men — or trying to — in a variety of configurations: fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, extended family and friendship groups and lovers. When the men dance and sing to Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much,” you may be reminded of a similar scene in The Boys in the Band. But while plays such as The Boys in the Band have portrayed gay men as isolated from the communities that produced them, The Hot Wing King emphasizes that gay folk continue to have connections and responsibilities to their roots: from the gospel-laced and culturally specific Luther Vandross and Donny Hathaway music they sing and dance to … through Cordell, who is getting a divorce and whose sons are ambivalent about staying connected to him … through the unexpected arrival of Dwayne’s nephew Everett “EJ” and brother-in-law TJ … through TJ’s act of blessing and entrusting the care of his son to lovers Cordell and Dwayne … What we are shown in the men of The Hot Wing King is the interconnectedness and indivisibility of their gayness and their Blackness.
The production of Hot Wing King, now at Studio Theatre, is, as the phrase goes, hot, hot, hot. The play is also courageous in its exploration of the landmines within the landscape of human connection. And it is funny, not so much because it tries to be, but because the behavior of human beings when we try to avoid facing what we know we must face, is funny.
At first, the play seems like just another conventional commercially viable Black entertainment commodity, but I was surprised by the way it repeatedly confronts us with monologues that plumbed existential depths. The subject of The Hot Wing King is not chicken wings. (Nor, for that matter, is its subject watermelon, another popular trope involving Black people, entertainment, and money.) The subject of The Hot Wing King, as I see it, is the love Black men have for each other, the systemic threats to that love, how that love can be passed on to the next generation, and the importance of that love for sustaining and maintaining Black community.
All plays are about relationships. But the text of The Hot Wing King leans hard into the examination and expression of the idea of relationship. There is not a word spoken that does not spring from the relationships of these people to each other: that includes the words nigger, bitch, faggot, which the men joyfully, ironically, strategically, frequently, and unapologetically use in addressing each other and in talking about events that affect their lives.
Cordell, a husband and father, has moved from St. Louis to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with Dwayne, his lover of five years. Cordell left behind his two sons and a wife (who has not yet signed the divorce papers). He left his wife everything and is now jobless and dependent upon Dwayne. Cordell and Dwayne have been living together now for two months. It is the evening before the Memphis Hot Wing Festival. The prize for the best wings at this festival is $5,000, and Cordell is intent on winning. He has assembled a crew of trusted friends, and they are preparing for the next day’s competition when Dwayne’s nephew EJ shows up in need of a place to stay. EJ’s mother, Dwayne’s sister, was killed by police (something Dwayne feels responsible for), and his father is unreliable.
Anchoring this play are four gay men. In addition to Cordell and Dwayne, there are Big Charles, the barber at whose shop Cordell and Dwayne first met, and Isom, loud, expressive, and often wrong, who is Big Charles’ on-again-off-again lover. They share their opinions about each other’s lives and their appreciation for each other. Isom says to Cordell about the length of time it took for him to commit to his relationship to Dwayne: “Well, at least you move faster than the Israelites. It took them 40 years to move to Memphis. It only took you five.” Big Charles responds: “Isom, the pot you need to be stirring is right there.”
The direction, by Steve H. Broadnax III, was efficient, delightful, and thoughtful work that I look forward to seeing again. For example, there was the scene in which three of the friends are huddled at the upstage sink with their backs to the audience. When heterosexual brother-in-law TJ enters and questioningly observes the men’s behinds moving vigorously in response to their efforts, he is informed that they’re “just washing chicken.” He responds: “Is that what they callin’ it now?”
Then there is a conversation between Cordell and Dwayne that takes place on a couch. Through the staging of this conversation, director Broadnax lets us know these are not men for whom bodies and sex are brave new worlds. Cordell is uncomfortable about being dependent on Dwayne. Dwayne is trying to get Cordell to understand and accept the support that he wants to give. While one conversation is taking place with the words from their mouths, another complementary conversation is going on with their bodies. As they talk, we see their bodies fit into each other in an experienced way. This fully clothed embrace on the couch is neither coy nor shocking: it is revelatory of the comfort, courage, honesty, and intimacy they have already established and a promise of what’s possible in fully clothed situations to come over many fully clothed years. There is not a part of their bodies that is off limits to either person. (Great appreciation for the contributions of intimacy choreographer Raja Benz to this scene.) And there’s the implication that there is not a part of their hearts that is not also being laid open for penetration. It makes a statement about the seriousness of the stakes and the depth of the relationship. It makes you wonder what they went through to get this close to one another.
The cast is exemplary. I enjoyed watching Brian Marable (Cordell) and Blake Morris (Dwayne) spar with each other as they attempt to strengthen and secure their relationship. Michael Kevin Darnall’s resonant voice and flexible body make for an attention-grabbing Isom, believably reined in when needed by Bjorn DuPaty’s Big Charles. Derrick Sanders III plays EJ with a balance of youthful confusion and desire to survive. Jaben Early as TJ gives a touching performance as a man who, if he cannot be a “good” father, wants at least to “do right by my son.”
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
EXTENDED: The Hot Wing King plays through August 7, 2022, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets (starting at $75, with low-cost options and discounts available), go online or call the box office: 202-332-3300.
The program for The Hot Wing King is online here.
COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination (or a negative COVID test) and facemask are required. Studio Theatre’s complete Health and Safety protocols are here.