A recipe for success: Writers’ ‘The Hot Wing King’ a tasty slice of life

“The Hot Wing King” — 3 stars

“All lil’ Black boys deserve love, even the ones trapped in the bodies of grown (expletive) Black men,” proclaims one of the characters in “The Hot Wing King,” Katori Hall’s affectionate dramedy about a group of gay Black men preparing for a Memphis hot wing competition now in its Chicago-area premiere at Writers Theatre.

Black love in its various incarnations — romantic, platonic, filial — animates Hall’s 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of found families, fatherhood and masculinity of the nontoxic variety.

Lovers Dwayne (Jos N. Banks), left, and Cordell (Breon Arzell) share some alone time while preparing for a hot wing competition in Writers Theatre's “The Hot Wing King.” Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

The action unfolds in a contemporary two-story home, whose casually chic interior is by set designer Lauren M. Nichols. It belongs to hotel manager Dwayne (Jos N. Banks) who shares it with his boyfriend, Cordell (Breon Arzell). Cordell moved in two months earlier following their five-year, long-distance relationship during which he lived in St. Louis with his wife and sons.

The divorce has been emotionally and financially costly for Cordell, who has been unable to find a job in his new hometown and is insecure about his continued financial dependence on Dwayne. Dwayne has his own emotional baggage relating to the death two years earlier of his sister, who struggled with mental illness.

The play opens with Cordell and friends (a kind of hot wing aficionados fraternity who refer to themselves as the New Wing Order) preparing for the annual hot wing cook-off. The group has come close, but they’ve never won. This year, in his bid to take the crown, Cordell has created a new sauce (of which audience members get a whiff) which he describes as Cajun Alfredo, with bourbon-infused crumbled bacon.

Joseph Anthony Byrd, left, Breon Arzell, Jabari Khaliq, Jos N. Banks and Thee Ricky Harris serve up Black love in Writers Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of “The Hot Wing King” by Katori Hall. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Serving as sous chefs are barber and resident sage Big Charles (Thee Ricky Harris) and the wisecracking Isom (Joseph Anthony Byrd), a flamboyant newcomer to New Wing Order.

They’re later joined by Dwayne’s 16-year-old nephew Everett (Jabari Khaliq). Traumatized over the loss of his mother and with a mostly absent father, Everett has been couch-surfing at the homes of his friends. Later still Everett’s father TJ (Kevin Tre’von Patterson) — a petty thief and con man who enlists his unwilling son in his schemes — shows up.

TJ (Kevin Tre'von Patterson), left, has a heart-to-heart with his teenage son Everett (Jabari Khaliq) in Writers Theatre's production of Katori Hall's Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Hot Wing King.” Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Instructing his crew on the intangibles involved in the making of a perfect wing, Cordell says “hot wings, the good wings anyway, are about the layers … balance.” The same can be said of this group of men — imperfect yet imminently likable — whose love for each other, for their chosen family, is palpable.

Except for occasional breaks to play one-on-one basketball in the backyard, the characters spend most of their time onstage chopping, stirring and seasoning Cordell’s secret sauce. (If you haven’t guessed, the adage about too many cooks applies here).

Hall’s writing is witty and expressive with predictable epiphanies and copious pop culture references. Among them is a silky smooth (and comically revealing) version of Luther Vandross’ “Never too Much.”

In that regard, “The Hot Wing King” plays like classic sitcoms whose recipes pair heart-baring exchanges and good-natured put-downs with some broad physical comedy on the side. But the typically palatable jibes these men serve each other never leave a bad taste. When tempers threaten to boil over, someone always lowers the flame, and everything they make is made with love.

Directed with warmth and compassion by Lili-Anne Brown, Writers’ production boasts first-rate actors. Kudos to all of them for the flavorful treat.

• • •

Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through July 21. Also, 3 p.m. July 10 and 17. No 6 p.m. show July 21

Tickets: $35-$90

Running time: About 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission

Parking: On the street

Rating: For adults; includes strong language, mature subject matter

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