Hot Wing King is "HEATED" at Circuit Playhouse - 10s Across the Board

Explore our review of "Hot Wing King" at Circuit Playhouse. This powerful production, featuring standout performances and brilliant direction, celebrates Black queer joy and tackles themes of personal and relational identity. Don't miss this must-see show!


"Hot Wing King" at Circuit Playhouse is a dynamic celebration of Black queer joy and the complexities of personal and relational identity. This production, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Katori Hall, features an outstanding cast of Memphis's finest Black male performers. With its immersive set design, masterful direction, and powerful performances, "Hot Wing King" offers a fresh, fierce, and heartfelt exploration of chosen family, love, and resilience. Dive into our review to discover why this show is a must-see and how it beautifully captures the spirit of community and identity.

In this AUDicle:

  • Spicy Plots and Tangy Themes: Explore the deep and layered themes of personal and relational identity, chosen family, and the resilience of Black queer men.
  • Sizzling Standout Performances: A tribute to the exceptional actors who brought these characters to life.
  • Bold Direction and Flavorful Vision: Insight into the masterful direction and creative vision behind the production.
  • Tasty Technical Design: A look at the immersive set design, lighting, and sound that enhanced the storytelling.
  • Savory Impact and Reception: Reflections on the audience's reception and the production's timely relevance.
  • Final Bite: Final thoughts on why "Hot Wing King" is a powerful and necessary addition to the theater landscape.

The moment I walked into the theatre, I audibly said, "Look at this muthafuckin' set!" The space immediately set the tone and environment for the show. As a Black gay man in theatre, witnessing "Hot Wing King" at Circuit Playhouse was a deeply personal and transformative experience. It was expansive and open, like a sound stage for a sitcom. The music that accompanied my search for my seat immersed me further into the space. Reflecting on the audition experience for the piece, I grew more excited. This production features some of the finest Black male performers Memphis has to offer, portraying Black queer characters set in our own city, written by one of our own. It can't get any better than that. It was more than just a play; it was a celebration of our lives, our struggles, and our triumphs.

Spicy Plots and Tangy Themes

"Hot Wing King" tackles the intricate layers of personal and relational identity within the Black queer community. The narrative delves into the complex lives of Black gay men, highlighting their struggles with rejection, fear of abandonment, and the constant battle to maintain family and normalcy. This play sheds light on the significant role Black queer men play in rearing families and supporting friends across generations. The themes of resilience, love, and chosen family are beautifully woven throughout the story, making it both relatable and thought-provoking.

As I watched Cordell and Dwayne navigate their lives, I couldn't help but reflect on my own experiences. For many Black gay men, there is no blueprint for how to love each other, and this play beautifully highlighted the complexities and challenges we face in our romantic relationships.

Sizzling Standout Performances

The cast of "Hot Wing King" delivers powerful and heartfelt performances that bring depth and authenticity to their characters.

(left to right) Justin Raynard-Hicks as Dwayne, Trey Oliver as Big Charles, CJ Thomas as Isom, and Justin Allen-Tate as Cordell in The Hot Wing King
Justin Allen Tate as Cordell:

Justin Allen Tate’s portrayal of Cordell is a masterclass in responsiveness and emotional depth. This man is quick with it! His wit and impeccable timing give life to Cordell's dialogue, making each word feel as though it is coming straight from his heart. Tate's ability to internalize Cordell’s struggles and aspirations adds a profound layer of authenticity to the character. He balances Cordell’s domesticity with moments of intense vulnerability and strength, showcasing his versatility as an actor. His interactions with the other characters are dynamic and emotionally charged, elevating the stakes of the story. I really felt like they were preparing for a huge competition. This show is prop heavy, and just like the sauces, Justin knows how to grab a moment and milk it for everything its got. Tate’s performance is a testament to his dedication to his craft, and his portrayal of Cordell is both relatable and deeply moving.

This was actually my first time witnessing Justin on stage, especially in a straight play, but I was not surprised one bit. If you would have witnessed his audition, you would understand why he was made for this role. Cordell kept everyone, including the audience, gathered.

Justin Allen-Tate as Cordell and Justin Raynard-Hicks as Dwayne in The Hot Wing King
Justin Raynard Hicks as Dwayne:

Justin Raynard Hicks is the rock of this piece, reminding us of the effort required to keep it together when everything else is falling apart. He brings a grounded and nuanced presence to the role of Dwayne. His portrayal is marked by a quiet strength and a deep understanding of the character's internal conflicts. Hicks’ performance is a study in subtlety and restraint, capturing Dwayne’s struggle to maintain balance amidst personal and relational turmoil. He is the epitome of a "good boyfriend." His ability to convey complex emotions through small gestures and expressions is refreshing to watch. This character was handled with ease to the naked eye. Hicks’ stage presence is commanding, yet he never overshadows his fellow actors, instead providing a steady anchor for the ensemble. His dedication to portraying the intricacies of Dwayne’s character is evident in every scene, making his performance both compelling and memorable. Hicks gives just the right attack in each combative moment. Not to mention, physically, he is absolutely gorgeous in this piece, giving handsome professional.

I'm very proud of Justin in this piece. It isn't a matter of courage or bravery. It's the power In seeing him constantly evolve to exist out loud.

Trey Oliver as Big Charles:

Trey Oliver’s portrayal of Big Charles is a standout performance that showcases his versatility and depth as an actor. We have seen him in a number of diverse roles in the last two years. He becomes more and more of a master of disguise with each production. Oliver brings edge and complexity to the character, creating a believable and authentic portrayal that feels both familiar and fresh to those of us that know men just like Big Charles. He had the swag of a barber down pact. His subtle approach to Big Charles allows for a gradual reveal of the character's insecurities, keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. Oliver’s ability to switch between moments of humor and intensity with ease demonstrate his comfort on stage. His performance is marked by a keen attention to timing and detail, making Big Charles a layered and captivating character. We watch him go from reserved sporty man to a softer man that is confident about what he wants and isn't afraid to show his fem side! His portrayal of "trade" without a DL storyline was refreshing. Oliver’s work in this production is a testament to his talent and dedication to his craft.

CJ Thomas as Isom:

CJ Thomas delivers a bold and brilliant performance as Isom, bringing a vibrant energy to the character. I really enjoy CJ in this role. It is perfect and natural for him. It is easy to make caricatues our of characters like this, and most do, but Thomas’ portrayal is fearless and full of life, capturing the essence of Isom’s unapologetic self-expression. His ability to balance the comedic and serious moments with equal skill make his performance enticing. His unfiltered use of cultured physicalities and colloquial expressions make Isom undeniable for anyone witnessing, creating a character that is both dynamic and memorable. He had the audience eating out the palm of his hands. His performance is a celebration of individuality and authenticity...audacity too, making Isom a standout character in the production and theatre in general. CJ's work in this role is both impressive and inspiring. I love a fearless bitch.

Marc Gill as TJ:

Marc Gill’s portrayal of TJ is a powerful exploration of fatherhood and identity. My first thought perception of this character was just how much different he is from the actual actor. Marc brings a raw and laidback emotional intensity to the character. I know that may sound contradictory, but this is a man that is willing to rest in his delusion to maintain some sort of relationship with his son. It was an interesting character. You couldn't hate him; even as he got schooled. Marc kept him cool while capturing the complexities of TJ’s struggles and aspirations. Gill’s ability to convey the intricate decisions of TJ’s journey through both dialogue and physicality adds context to the character. We don't see him much, but each time he is on stage, it is profound or it brings us right back into the reality of the situation at hand making TJ a pivotal character. His portrayal is both heart-wrenching and hopeful, leaving a lasting impact on the audience. I enjoyed his portrayal of his very last line. It was touching. Marc’s work in this production is graceful and poignant.

Charles Hunter as Everett:

Charles Hunter as TJ is an absolute force on stage. His portrayal of a homeless young man navigating an adult world after losing his mother can gut you at times, and he does a great job of keeping it unassuming. After TJ's monologue in the first act, I was stuck in my seat as I wept and stared helplessly at him. Charles took us on a journey and remained a child throughout. He delivers a captivating performance as Everett, bringing a unique and powerful presence to the character. His portrayal is marked by a deep emotional resonance, capturing the complexities of Everett’s journey with authenticity and spontaneity. Every disagreement is both compelling and relatable. I favored the scene with TJ and Cordell the most. Charles knows how to use his instrument to his advantage and to the advantage of the stage. Charles is going places! He has all the right ingredients to be a groundbreaking artist.

Justin Raynard Hicks as Dwayne, Trey Oliver as Big Charles, and Trey Hunter as TJ in The Hot Wing King

Bold Direction and Flavorful Vision

What a debut for Jeramie Simmons! Every spot on stage was full of life, representing how art imitates life. Director Jeramie Simmons and Assistant Director Courtney Oliver bring a bold and cohesive vision to "Hot Wing King." The direction captures the essence of the characters' lives, emphasizing the importance of space and presence. The production's momentum and timing are executed flawlessly, with each scene flowing seamlessly into the next. The use of viewpoints and staging enhances the storytelling, making every moment on stage feel alive and significant. The production was immersive, with culinary aspects taking us to another level. We didn't just see wings being eaten; we could smell them! The entire production lent itself to showcasing gay men that exist, not just for entertainment. The creative team's attention to detail and commitment to showcasing the multifaceted lives of Black queer men is evident throughout the production.

Tasty Technical Design

The technical design of "Hot Wing King" is nothing short of immersive. The set design by Andrew Mannion creates a realistic and expansive environment that draws the audience into the characters' world. The lighting and sound design by Megan Christoferson and Josh Crawford, respectively, support the narrative beautifully, enhancing the emotional impact of each scene. Waverly Strickland's costuming is on point, 10s girl, 10s, capturing the essence of each character and adding to the overall visual appeal of the production. The practical elements, such as cooking with an air fryer on stage, add an extra layer of realism and immersion to the experience.

The time and attention to this piece was really appreciated it. It came across as very technical and well executed.

Savory Impact and Reception

"Hot Wing King" received enthusiastic responses from the audience, with many finding the production both entertaining and deeply moving. The play's themes of resilience, chosen family, and personal identity resonated with viewers, sparking meaningful conversations and reflections. The production's immersive elements, from the set design to the culinary aspects, created a memorable and engaging experience. The portrayal of Black queer men in such a nuanced and authentic manner is both timely and necessary, highlighting the importance of representation and storytelling in theater.

Justin Allen Tate as Cordell and Marc Gill as EJ in The Hot Wing King

Final Bite

Through my work in theatre and my friendships with other Black gay men in this city, I have grown emotionally and matured in ways I never thought possible. "Hot Wing King" showcased the importance of these relationships and the unique bond we share. Seeing characters who reflect our lives and experiences on stage was validating and empowering. It reminded me of the importance of our contributions to the community and the need to continue telling our stories.

At a time when Black queer voices are being increasingly silenced and more organizations are leaning towards conservative values, the cultural significance of "Hot Wing King" cannot be overstated. It gives visibility to Black men who keep our community functioning and impactful in the face of adversity.

"Hot Wing King" is a powerful and necessary addition to the theater landscape, showcasing the resilience, strength, and complexity of Black queer men. The production's masterful direction, outstanding performances, and immersive technical design make it a must-see. This play is a testament to the power of storytelling and the importance of representation, offering a fresh and fierce celebration of Black queer joy and community.

Don't miss the chance to witness this dynamic and heartfelt production.

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