By Tulis McCall
Katori Hall loves people. She loves to hear what they have to say. And these fine gentlemen ALL have a lot to say in The Hot Wing King. Hall says,”If I know where a character sits in the house then I can figure out who they are.” Lucky for us there are plenty of seats in this house.
The place is Memphis, in a midtown upscale home belonging to Dwayne (Korey Jackson). His partner Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) is a recent transplant from St. Louis (where he left a wife and 2 boys). Cordell remains unemployed and frustrated after 2 months, but today he busy preparing for his entry into the Memphis Hot Wing Festival. Big Charles (Nicco Annan) and his on-again-off- again partner Isom (Sheldon Best) round out the team of regulars. This weekend is all about the wings and the men who shepherd them from the refrigerator to the Hall of Chicken Wing Fame. These men are the New Wing Order.
The major fly in the ointment arrives in the form of Dwayne’s teenage nephew Everett – EJ – ( Cecil Blutcher) who has been living on the edge with his father TJ (Eric B. Robinson Jr.). EJ has left his father and needs a place to stay “for one night.” This is a repeat performance, and an unwelcome one. The last time TJ made an appearance some money went missing. Adding insult to injury, TJ arrives full of bravado that tosses a large does of “Uh-oh” into the mix.
These six characters could not be more different. Although we find out little about what they do when not hanging with the Wing detail (except for Dwayne who manages a hotel), we find out plenty about who they are and how they click. Fast talk and snappy attitude on the surface and deep trust and faith bubbling underneath. Add a dash of fire and you are all set.
The Hot Wing festival prep is sort of like Thanksgiving without the bird. Everyone is wearing his heart on his sleeve and trying to cover it up. Dwayne and Cordell are at a crossroad that requires tending to. The relationship needs an oil change. EJ is floundering between being a kid and sliding into adulthood. Big Charles has big shoulders for people to lean on and his own brand of opinionating. Isom looks and acts like a bobble-headed pretty thing of the first order – but this one is crazy like a fox.
Hall mixes and matches these men in overlapping encounters so that, one by one, they are revealed to us as they engage, encounter and rebound off of one another. She weaves them together until they create an entire tapestry – and it is one that we do not see coming. There is no heavy handed proselytizing here. There is only the steady beat of hearts and the constant searching for something more, for a belonging. For balance. For life.
These five actors make an extraordinary ensemble. Each knows when to step into the light and when to pull back. These men are so connected to one another that they sweep you into their orbit without you noticing. In the final moments of this play, however, we are welcomed into a scene of such simple majesty that we feel ourselves being disarmed in the best way possible. Fine work.
Bravo all around. Go.Go.Go!
The Hot Wing King – By Katori Hall; Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III
WITH Sheldon Best (Isom), Cecil Blutcher (Everett “EJ”), Korey Jackson (Dwayne), Toussaint Jeanlouis (Cordell), Eric B. Robinson Jr. (TJ), and Nicco Annan (Big Charles).
Michael Carnahan (Scenic Designer), Emilio Sosa (Costume Designer), Alan C. Edwards (Lighting Designer), and Luqman Brown and Robert Kaplowitz (Sound Designers).
through March 22, 2020 with opening night set for March 1 in The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues). All tickets for the initial run of the production are $35 as part of the Signature Ticket Initiative: A Generation of Access. To purchase tickets for all Signature productions, call Ticket Services at 212-244-7529 (Tues. – Sun., 11am – 6pm) or visit www.SignatureTheatre.org.