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Food Is Not Art.
God, it feels good, at last, to say it. Food is not art. But we write about it, talk about it, and make shows about it as though it is.
Cooking is a magnificent skill, and sharing culinary traditions is a delightful means of bringing disparate peoples of the world together to appreciate one another’s gifts. But, in the same way that a novel or a painting can provide spiritual succor but not the calories and nutrients required to keep the metabolic engine of the body chugging, food, no matter how lovingly prepared, cannot express emotion. There are joyful and mournful songs, but not joyful and mournful dishes. An entree cannot make you see the world through someone else’s eyes. A recipe cannot encapsulate an era. A meal cannot communicate an idea—at least not an idea any more complicated than oh, this tastes good with this.
Art can do those things. Food can’t.
And for those of us who write about the performing arts—in an era when serious coverage of that art has been whittled to a carton of stale MREs while the volume of media devoted to cooking, eating, and “fine” dining has become an ever-expanding banquet—it’s cause for serious heartburn that food coverage has summited the arts-and-culture food chain. I can’t pretend I’m not sucking on a vintage delicacy known as raisins aigres (roughly, “sour grapes”) here.
So factor in this disclosure in to my earnest recommendation of Studio Theatre’s The Hot Wing King, a deeply nourishing play “about” chicken wings only insofar as they’re the McGuffin that drives the makeshift family at the show’s center—a half-dozen Black men, four of them queer—to spend an eventful 24 hours cooped up in a house together. The piece’s true subjects are masculinity, self-acceptance, forgiveness, and the families we choose. But talking about those things, especially for men unhelpfully conditioned to view introspection as weakness, can be hard. Yammering on about yams—or wings—is easy-peasy.
Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King had its Off-Broadway run cut short by the pandemic in early 2020, but still managed to win the playwright the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Today’s production of this traditional drama about a nontraditional family cooked up by director Steve H. Broadnax III for Studio Theatre is funny, vibrant, insightful, and sensitively performed by its dialed-in cast.
The setting is Hall’s hometown of Memphis, the night before the annual World Championship Hot Wing Contest and Festival. Tightly wound 40-something foodie Cordell (Brian Marable) is determined not only to smoke his nemeses The Wing Wang Twins, but to bring home the top prize. He’s turned the kitchen within the fastidiously kept home (vividly rendered in three-room cutaway by set designer Michael Carnahan) of his boyfriend Dwayne (Blake Morris) into a culinary command center wherein 280 pounds of chicken wait in various stages of readiness to wow the judges.
Cordell fancies himself (deep sigh) an artist when it comes to his wings, devoting endless hours to perfecting the exact ratio of fruit to Himalayan sea salt. When Dwayne confesses that Cordell’s blue-cheese-and-blueberry combo makes him want to gag, Cordell laments that “your taste buds were not civilized.” But in matters of planning and precision, Cordell is more like a military officer—or a FedEx logistics manager, which is in fact what he was in his old life. He intends to have his crew, who call themselves The New Wing Order, on the festival grounds setting up the moment the parking lot opens at 6 a.m.
If he seems to be taking this wang (sic) thang (sic) too seriously, the poor guy could use a win: He has only recently come out and and moved in with Dwayne, leaving behind a dumbstruck wife and two almost-grown sons who haven’t spoken to him since he left. Out-and-proud Dwayne, meanwhile, resents how long Cordell took to make their relationship public. As if that wasn’t strain enough, Cordell is having trouble finding work in his new city, and he’s uncomfortable letting his partner support him.
Also present as only somewhat reliable sous-chefs are Big Charles (Bjorn DuPaty) an even-tempered barber who introduced Cordell and Dwayne a few years earlier, and Isom (Michael Kevin Darnall), younger and hornier than the other three, and seemingly enjoying a fling with Big Charles (they met at church). Then there’s EJ (Derrick Sanders III), Dwayne’s in-for-the-weekend 16-year-old nephew, for whom Dwayne feels obliged to serve as a sturdier role model than TJ (JaBen Early), EJ’s thieving, drug-dealing, oft-absent old man. TJ, for his part, knows he isn’t doing right by his son, but the homophobia that’s built into his flawed sense of masculinity makes him wary of ceding too much influence over the boy to his stable, loving, responsible, and unapologetically gay brother-in-law Dwayne.
Cordell is enough of a control freak to insist that his teammates stir his wing sauce only counterclockwise because “it distributes the heat better.” But Hall’s command of these characters is relaxed—both assured and reassuring—wringing comedy from the group scenes and tender revelation from the one-on-ones.
The four gay characters here are prone to spontaneous sing-alongs of Luther Vandross’ hit 1981 ballad “Never Too Much.” Aside from being appropriate to the time and place—this is a jam 40-year-olds likely first heard in their parents’ homes—the choice of a song by a beloved Black entertainer who never came out publicly but whose close friends confirmed his queerness after his death resonates with Cordell’s interior struggle. Cordell suffered while he hid who he was and has now paid a dear price for living his truth. He’s still trying to persuade himself it was worth it. Marable’s expertly calibrated performance shows us the struggle within Cordell in a persuasive, naturalistic way, while still keeping the strict verbal rhythm Hall’s jokes demand. A heady quotient of those punchlines are explicitly queer, Black, and southern. Which makes them wholly inappropriate for this straight, White, mid-Atlantic guy to dare to quote, but also proves yet again the adage that Specific is Universal.
Hall’s body of work is a testament to how far this specificity can travel. In the years since her 2009 play The Mountaintop—an imaginary account of the final night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life—took a big leap from a 65-seat London theater to a Broadway production starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, she’s turned her attention to less famous but equally significant subjects. Her play The Blood Quilt examined a family of Black women with ties to the Gullah Geechee communities of Georgia and the Carolinas. (Caroline Stefanie Clay, who was so sublime in Arena’s The Blood Quilt seven years ago, serves as Hot Wing King’s dialect coach.) More recently, Hall adapted her play Pussy Valley, about dancers at a Mississippi strip club, into the Starz streaming series P-Valley, which has just released its second season. By doubling down on the intimate, personal, culturally discrete experiences of the oft-marginalized, Hall has found the best possible use of her gift—becoming an even better storyteller in the bargain.
If her script is the recipe, then director Broadnax is the chef who has lovingly coaxed from it every distinct flavor. The opportunity to experience such a rich and satisfying evening of theatre in Studio’s newly dedicated Victor Shargai Theatre is one even the spice-averse should not miss. Chicken wangs ain’t art, but this play is. Long live The Hot Wing King.
The Hot Wing King, written by Katori Hall and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, has been extended and plays at Studio Theatre through Aug. 7. studiotheatre.org. $65–$100.