Things Get Spicy at “The Hot Wing King”

Mariana Pelaez


Bjorn DuPaty and Israel Erron Ford in The Hot Wing King (2024). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The new play “The Hot Wing King” is not just about the greasy snack. The play now on at the Hartford Stage Company is a beautiful meditation on Black masculinity, queerness, and the relationships that make us who we are. The play written by Katori Hall and directed by Christopher D. Betts, is about a group of friends preparing for their yearly tradition, The “Memphis Hot Wang Festival.” The title of the play suggested I was in for a comedy, something light-hearted and silly. While there was lots of laughter, I was surprised to find myself tearing up throughout the show. I wasn’t expecting such a beautiful and emotional display of the intricacies of human relationships. The play also features an all-Black cast and centers on a queer friend group; these are the kinds of stories that have been missing from our local stages.

Calvin M. Thompson, Israel Erron Ford, Bjorn DuPaty, and Postell Pringle in The Hot Wing King (2024). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The cast is small and intimate with only six characters. The play follows Dwayne (Calvin M. Thompson) and Cordell (Bjorn DuPaty), a queer couple, and their two friends, Isom (Israel Erron Ford) and Big Charles (Postell Pringle). They are the first characters we meet, as we watch them prepare for the big hot wing competition and learn about their connection to one another, including Dwayne and Cordell’s relationship. Dwayne’s nephew, EJ (Marcus Gladney, Jr), and his father, TJ (Alphonso Walker Jr) show up a bit later in the story and cause a shift in the crew’s plans. The play takes place in Dwayne and Cordell’s home, giving the entire play a cozy feel. The two-story set gives a view into the kitchen, the yard, and the upstairs bedroom simultaneously, making the audience feel like part of the action and a part of the conversation. The actors do a tremendous job of pulling you out of your seat and into this crazy evening of hot wing prep. We get to know the friend group’s quirks and sense of humor, even joining them in a sing-along.

Bjorn DuPaty and Alphonso Walker Jr. in The Hot Wing King (2024). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Things get complicated when EJ shows up at their door the night before the competition that Cordell and the group have been waiting for all year. This unexpected visit quickly begins to reveal family tensions and relationship rifts, both between Cordell and Dwayne but also in each of their families. At this point, the play paints a painful, but honest picture of how chosen and biological families can be challenging, but how these different bonds are the most important thing we have.

These intense emotional moments that come from Dwayne’s familial history and Cordell’s relationship history are balanced perfectly by the comedic timing of Big Charles and Isom. Isom’s battle to take over the TV and play Cardi B, his reluctance over having to be the designated “stirrer” for the wing prep, or his roasts of all the other characters are just a few examples of how he shines and interjects seamlessly with the heavier moments in the show. Isom and Big Charles play off each other in a way that feels like a breath of fresh air. One moment that elicited a roar of laughter was right after an extremely tense moment between two characters, we caught a glimpse of Isom and Big Charles eavesdropping and then trying to quickly hide it.

Calvin M. Thompson, Bjorn DuPaty, and Marcus Gladney, Jr. in The Hot Wing King (2024). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Isom, Charles, Dwayne, and Cordell as a friend group feel reminiscent of a specific queer sense of humor that many of us are familiar with. It felt like a night out with my friends, a sort of comedy that I’m not used to seeing on stage. Those moments, the ones that felt the most like home, were some of my favorites — watching the group bicker and break out into dance while prepping for this important day brought me a lot of joy. Another relationship that made the play stand out was Dwayne and EJ’s. Watching a young straight boy relate and connect with his queer uncle, despite his father’s lack of understanding, was precious and a level of realism that made me love the play deeply. None of these characters were perfect, or even close to it. They all had ugly moments, and difficult pasts, and made mistakes. Yet, they were all lovable in their way and you couldn’t help but root for them to get past these obstacles. This is much more appealing to me than a simple “villain” and “good guy” — real life is muddled and complicated. The story also hammers home the message that sometimes the plans you had weren’t what you actually needed, some of the best things in life can be unexpected. We see this clearly in Dwayne and Cordell’s relationship and how things play out between them. The play is full of tender moments, big laughs, and some great musical selections, including classic soul and some hip-hop. Every detail ties the show together, taking you out of your reality and into the world of the Hot Wing King.

Postell Pringle, Bjorn DuPaty, Alphonso Walker Jr., Calvin M. Thompson, and Israel Erron Ford in The Hot Wing King (2024). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

I highly recommend you find your way to Hartford Stage Company to catch this remarkable show. The writing felt so authentic — I’d say that’s a result of Hall pulling from real-life experience, she wrote this play based on her brother and his barbecuing partner. Of course, the acting brought this writing to life. This amazing cast was able to show tough conversations and then immediately make the audience laugh. The actors also conveyed emotions in an extremely convincing way, driving me and other audience members to tear up. “The Hot Wing King” is playing at Hartford Stage right now and will continue until March 24th, with a special post-show discussion happening on March 19th and 20th.