Two things to know up front about “The Hot Wing King,” the new Pulitzer Prize-winning play opening at the Alliance Theatre on Feb. 10.
1. The cast will be cooking real chicken wings in a real kitchen onstage at every performance, with the aroma wafting out over the audience.
2. It’s not about the hot wings.
Katori Hall calls her play a “dramedy,” a hybrid that is working serious terrain — exploring what it means to be a Black gay man in the contemporary South — but with one-liners to add another flavor to the drama.
On the eve of Memphis’s annual “Hot Wang Festival,” Cordell (Bjorn Dupaty) is testing recipes at the home he shares with his partner Dwayne (Calvin Thompson). A few family members and friends stop in over the course of the evening to add more spice and complicate the plot.
The play debuted off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre in February 2020 and ran a mere six weeks before the COVID pandemic shut down all live theater.
When it won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Pulitzer board called it a “funny, deeply felt consideration of Black masculinity and how it is perceived, filtered through the experiences of a loving gay couple and their extended family.”
The Alliance production is only the third time the play has been staged and marks the theatrical directorial debut for playwright Hall, who is also acclaimed as the showrunner of the Starz TV hit “P-Valley,” about a Southern Black strip club.
Hall, 41, who has made her home in Atlanta the last two years, says she wanted to write about love between gay men, and she got there through cooking.
“I feel as though cooking is a reflection of love,” she says. “I have seen home chefs bake their love into a pie, use their hands as this bridge toward nourishment. To have this couple and their friends navigating this cooking contest, you can explore all the different shades of love.”
Hall was born in South Carolina and grew up in Memphis. Her brother Daryl, who still lives in Memphis, inspired her to write about gay Black men in the South.
“I have been so blessed to be a witness to his and his partner’s love, to see how they have struggled as gay Black men down South, how they have overcome so many obstacles,” she says.
“He was one of the first people I called when I won the Pulitzer, and he was just crying. He didn’t know that his life was worthy of public exploration or that it would be critically lauded in that way. It sends this strong message that his life is important as a gay Black man and is worthy of artistic exploration.”
Calvin Thompson, who identifies as “a Black queer man,” plays Dwayne, Cordell’s partner and the character inspired by Hall’s brother.
“I grew up in the South — South Carolina,” he continues. “In my experience growing up down here, the two areas where Black men often thrive and find their identities is the church and the football field. And often toxicity infiltrated both of those places. It’s led to a lot of minimizing of who Black gay men are. Unfortunately, the Black church has often been violent in speech and in intention and has minimized the humanity of Black gay men.”
Not everyone has accepted the play’s mix of comedy and drama. The Variety review of the off-Broadway show referred to it, not very respectfully, as a “gay sitcom.”
Hall thinks some folks don’t appreciate Southern Black humor.
“There’s a near constant misunderstanding of the South that I see and that my work pushes up against,” she says. “Specifically, when it comes to Black characters.
“I just really wanted to write interesting, bombastic characters who tend to say funny things,” she continues. “I think that, sadly, when some people see Black life on stage and there’s any humor attached there’s this automatic categorization of comedy placed upon it. When in actuality, it’s just a slice of life. … Black people use humor as a survival mechanism, even during moments of great duress and trauma.”
Hall has become a major creative force in recent years. She wrote the book and co-produced the Broadway hit “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” which Broadway in Atlanta brings to the Fox Theatre Feb. 21-26. Her play “The Mountaintop,” about the final night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, which premiered in London in 2009 and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play, opens a new production in Los Angeles this summer. And “P-Valley,” which films in Atlanta, has been renewed for a third season. All this landed her a development deal with Lionsgate Television that may let her multi-hyphenate in a major way for years to come.
“Katori’s voice as a writer is extremely authentic,” says Nicco Annan, who costars in “The Hot Wing King” and also plays non-binary Uncle Clifford on “P-Valley.”
“She writes for the Southern American experience,” he continues. “She writes for marginalized communities, whether those are Black people, queer people, women. Like Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison, she does not ask for permission or apologize for how her characters speak, how they sound, if they make up their own words. The rhythm of the culture is always present in her sounds.”
Hall moved to Atlanta in 2020 with her husband Alan Scoop, a musician from Uganda, and their two children. She did not know yet that “P-Valley” had been renewed, but she wanted to move back South from New York to be closer to her parents in Memphis and to live in a real house rather than a tiny apartment. Last year, she and Scoop had their third child. “I’ve been a very busy lady,” she says with a hearty laugh.
She may be back home in the South now, but she carried it with her during her more than 20 years away.
“The core of me is very Southern,” she says. “This region, everywhere that I go it is in my mind, it is in my heart. For me having all my work point to home was a way to feel at home.”
And yes, she does sometimes cook her own wings, but she is so busy she generally prefers to order out. Lemon pepper, please.
“The Hot Wing King.” Feb. 10-March 5. $25-$83. Recommended for audiences 14 and up. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE Atlanta. 404-733-4600, www.alliancetheatre.org/hotwingking
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