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Lead actor Breon Arzell of the Pulitzer winning play The Hot Wing King preps real raw chicken during a scene of the show.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

‘Hot Wing King’ deep-fries real chicken and masculinity narratives on stage

Writers Theatre delivers the Chicago premiere of the challenging-to-stage Pulitzer Winner, opening Friday.

When you go to the theater to see a show, what you experience during the performance is a series of moments. Each scene performed, every line spoken, is the result of meticulous planning, rehearsal and partnerships.

Some scenes take more work than others. In The Hot Wing King, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, opening Friday at Writers Theatre and running until July 21, one key moment onstage is a particular feat: balancing the lyrical complexity of the award-winning script with what it takes to cook and eat fried chicken wings onstage. Simply put: This scene is hard to pull off.

Very few productions try something this ambitious. When this cast and crew arrived at the intersection of emotional gymnastics and smoking hot cooking oil, they worked weeks on stage and in the “chicken lab” to nail the moment flawlessly. During a recent rehearsal, they walked WBEZ through the process of how they did it.

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Silicone chicken wings used on stage in The Hot Wing King. This prop chicken can be cut at 3 different joints with knives during the show, and be reassembled after.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

The plot of Hot Wing King follows Cordell, played by award-winning Chicago actor and choreographer Breon Arzell, as he embarks on a journey to win an annual hot wing contest in Memphis. Cordell has recently come out as gay, and left his wife and two children in St. Louis to move in with his boyfriend, Dwayne, played by award winning visual and performance artist Jos N. Banks.

What ensues, director Lili-Anne Brown says, is “a grown man sleepover,” as Cordell and Dwayne are joined by two of their friends, who are also gay men. It wouldn’t be a drama without tension: The group aims to craft the perfect wings to win Memphis’s annual contest.

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Cast members Joseph Anthony Byrd (left) and Breon Arzell (right) with a pot of oil in a scene of Writer Theatre’s The Hot Wing King. Actors fry real chicken on stage during the performance.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

In playwright Katori Hall’s hands, this group of men explore themes of friendship, relationships, fatherhood, sports, and masculinity in a way that challenges the typical representation of queer men onstage. There’s a former Division I basketball player; a troubled straight youth who lives with the gay couple; perspectives of different generations — and complex conversations about gender and sexuality that nabbed the play one of the top literary prizes, with judges calling it a “funny, deeply felt consideration of Black masculinity and how it is perceived.”

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Lyricism aside, the play’s technical aspects stand out for how hard they are to pull off in front of an audience. Hot wings are a key prop, and there are three types of chicken wings on stage at all times — raw, precooked and silicone prop. The actors start the process with the prop silicone wings, which are designed to be cut with real knives (and reassembled after each show) in mock preparation. The raw wings then are cooked live on stage, which was a topic of concern during a recent rehearsal. At one point, the oil was so hot and smoky, the crew had to stop the scene to ensure the fire alarm wasn’t triggered.

After the raw wings are cooked live, the precooked wings are on hand, but hidden, and must be seamlessly swapped with the scalding hot ones. Once swapped, the precooked wings are eaten by characters while acting.

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Prop designer Rae Watson shows WBEZ how she crafted the silicone prop chicken in The Hot Wing King, backstage during rehearsals.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

The task of pulling off the chicken wing swaps went to prop designer Rae Watson, who had to figure out how to create realistic looking chicken that looked indistinguishable from the actual chicken on stage that characters would cook in front of audiences.

“We really wanted that real chicken skin texture,” Watson said backstage on a recent Friday at Writers. She was standing in front of a butcher board filled with prop wings, explaining how she studied raw wing cutlets from actual chickens to nail color and texture.

“I cast them in a silicone mold. And then from that mold, I was able to make as many silicone wings as I wanted to,” Watson said. “It’s actually funny, the two colors I combined for making that meat color are called ‘flesh’ and ‘blood.’ ”

“It’s live cooking,” said lead actor Arzell. “It’s live eating. Everything is live, there’s no trickery or faking it. It’s all real. We have a real stove. We have real ovens, a real refrigerator, real running water. Everything is happening in real time.”

With prop wings in mock marinade on the counter, real raw wings being cooked in hot oil on the stove, and precooked wings ready to be seamlessly swapped and eaten — the hottest temperature on stage still manages to be Arzell once his character is challenged to fight his fear of opening his own restaurant.

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Cast members (left to right) Joseph Anthony Byrd, Jabari Khaliq, Breon Arzell, and Jos N. Banks perform a scene of The Hot Wing King. These are the final friendly moments before an emotional explosion.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

This moment, towards the end of the first act, starts with playful male bonding around a kitchen island, with laughter, love and joyful banter. And it immediately comes to halt when a joke cuts Arzell’s character, Cordell, just a little too deep. And the mood shifts from friendly to frigid. This moment, the jarring change in emotion, the contextual elements of the relationships between the characters, and with all of the technical aspects happening simultaneously — this is the scene, the moment, that will linger long after seeing the show.

And for this moment that shifts from 100 mph of fun to a screeching emotional halt, Arzell says he prepared in collaboration with Brown, with whom he had worked on multiple shows, including The Color Purple in 2019 and Dreamgirls the Musical in 2023.

“The great thing about having a great collaborator and director, is that they allow you to access these things in a way that’s also healthy,” said Arzell. “Because we have to do this eight times a week. We have to access those places in a way that won’t take a toll on us emotionally. So, it’s about creating those markers that are kind of like your way into enhancing or expanding on this storytelling.”

For Brown, as coach, she says her view of directing is rooted in being the steward of a story. It is not her goal to teach actors to act. She sees her responsibility as hiring talented actors, like Arzell, and placing them in a world that she has envisioned with set designers, costume designers, and prop designers — like Watson. From there, she allows actors into the sandbox to play and naturally discover what works.

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Lili-Anne Brown, director of The Hot Wing King outside of Writers Theatre, describes the play as a “grown man sleepover.”

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

In this case, the world created is Memphis. Big Charles is wearing a bedazzled Memphis Grizzlies basketball jersey. In the background, legendary Memphis rapper Juicy J can be heard through a speaker. Chicken sizzles in a smoking pot as it’s deep fried and the handpicked cast are all in place. The scene is set. And Arzell delivers, shifting from joy to shock to anger.

“It’s really about relying on that text and relying on the words [in the script] and not getting ahead of yourself,” said Arzell, speaking about the moment. “That’s one of the tricks of stage acting. Because you have to repeat this same experience again.”

In that dress rehearsal, Arzell hit the moment perfectly. But the challenge is recreating it for audiences every night.

“For an actor you kind of wipe the memory of what the previous day’s experience was, because you’ll never be able to repeat it,” Arzell said. “Because it’s a different day. It’s a different temperature in the room. They’re different people in the house, like everything is different. So the only way that you can kind of hold on to that moment and be able to repeat it, is to rely on the words and the convictions and the decisions and choices that you made for your character to have.”

But there will be one constant show to show — the chicken.

If you go: The Hot Wing King runs until July 21 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. Tickets from $35.


Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.

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