Memphis-native Katori Hall debuts The Hot Wing King in New York
Katori Hall is the Olivier Award-winning playwright of The Mountaintop. Most recently, she co-produced and wrote the book for the Broadway and West End hit, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Katori’s other works include Hurt Village, Our Lady of Kibeho, and Pussy Valley, which she adapted into a Starz television series premiering Summer 2020.
On February 11, her new play, The Hot Wing King (The Edgerton Foundation Award for New Plays) debuted in New York and will be running through March 22 at the Signature Theatre. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Katori about the play and some of the inspiration she’s drawn from the Memphis and cooking communities.
WCHWCF: When we found out about your new play, The Hot Wing King, which takes place at an annual hot wing festival in Memphis, Tennessee, we were instantly like “Wow, this is amazing!” As we read more, we began learning how it addresses some of the challenges facing the black and LGBTQ community in the South. Tell us more about what inspired this.
KH: You know I’m from Memphis, Tennessee originally. I’ve never been to the hot wing festival, unfortunately, but I’ve been trying to get my schedule together so I can go. I’m actually going to try to make it this year, since I know it’s become a World Championship. I love cooking and I love hot wings and I think when a lot of people think about Memphis, they thing about barbecue, they don’t necessarily think about hot wings. And so I wanted to center that cuisine in the midst of this family dramedy, or I’d call it a “framily dramedy” that’s inspired by my brother and his partner who are two black men in the South, who I’ve been a witness to their love and their struggle. The play has definitely become a way to honor the couple and of honoring the other members in our family and other friends that I have who are also LGBTQIA.
WCHWCF: With this “framily dramedy,” what made you feel like, at least as a plot device, the hot wing festival should be the background for that?
KH: I really love plays that center around rituals. And I think cooking, it’s not only in the black community but in all communities, it’s a way that families and communities gather, connect, share stories, and pass down traditions. I just felt like this amazing festival that I knew had become like a go-to in my hometown would just be a perfect place to dive into these conflicts that are present in this family. And the thing is when families get together whether it be Thanksgiving, Christmas, over dinner – there’s always some sort of friction like “Oh that person shouldn’t be watching the spices going in because they don’t pay attention!” (laughter). All kinds of character traits can come out in the cooking, so I just really wanted to embrace this idea of what I’ve grown to love when families come together to cook. It’s kind of like showing the connections and the love, and also the arguments that happen when you get people together in a small kitchen.
WCHWCF: There’s The Hot Wing King, but there’s also Hurt Village, Hoodoo Love, and Saturday Night Sunday Morning also using Memphis as a setting. In addition to your roots there, what is it about the Bluff City that lends itself to storytelling?
KH: I think because there’s just so many stories that haven’t been told yet on the world stage. Memphis has this very complicated history, extended from the founding of the city to going through the civil rights movement to where it is currently. And I just feel like it’s a beautiful city. It’s a city that I grew up in. It’s a city of struggle, but it’s also a city of resilience. There’s a lot of intersections of racism and sexism and classism that are still being unpacked and being cured in Memphis and I actually think returning to my hometown and telling those stories is a way to move my city forward. And I always feel like you can’t solve a problem if you don’t see it reflected back at you. So I definitely think my plays are a way for me to do that and to provide a mirror to my city.
WCHWCF: You mentioned earlier the inspiration for this play came from your brother and his partner who had difficulty becoming a couple, particularly in the South. Having seen firsthand some of these challenges, what are you hoping The Hot Wing King can bring to light for a broader audience?
KH: I think it’s something that with gay people – that’s not the deepest part of their identity. The biggest part of their identity is that they’re human beings. And I think there’s a lack of understanding when it comes to that community and, to normalize their existence, to put a gay couple at the center of it and to show they love and they fight – it normalizes the relationship. And I think with normalization you create a sense of empathy and understanding that prejudice and homophobia can be dismantled.
The director of The Hot Wing King, Steve H. Broadnax III, cites “Love never fails” as an overarching theme for the play. Can you expand on that?
KH: It’s a very Christian idea. This thing of unconditional love. God gives us unconditional love. God does not make mistakes. And I feel as though, at the center of our play, love is the most powerful thing. I think of what Dr. King marched for – this idea that you have to love each other equally. You also have to love yourself. So this controlling theme of “love never fails,” it echoes the idea of that. Love is the most powerful weapon on earth.
WCHWCF: You do present some serious challenges that face these main characters, but this play also has humor. As a playwright, how do you try to balance the two without the humor diminishing the thoughtfulness and vice versa?
KH: It’s funny, when I first started writing this play I never considered it to be a comedy. I knew that my characters were funny and they were going to say funny things, but for it to be a laugh-out-loud comedy, that was never really the intention. Because I was focused on just their relationship and their humanity, comedy is inherently going to come out of that because humor is part of the human condition. It’s tricky when you have two different tones in the play, but for me it’s really about honoring the truth of what people go through. That one second you could be laughing your ass off and then the next you’re crying, because I truly feel as that’s how people are in their day-to-day lives. Human beings can go through a roller coaster of emotions in the span of a day, so I think that’s why I embrace comedy and drama equally. That’s why when I’m talking about it, I tend to call it a “dramedy.”
WCHWCF: Keeping with the lighter side of things, we’re pretty confident no other play offers the audience The Hot Wing Challenge, consisting of 20 Memphis-style wings – who had the idea for that?
KH: (laughter) You know what, that was a marketing thing at Signature (Theatre) that did that.
WCHWCF: When someone comes to see The Hot Wing King, if you had to pick one prevailing thought you wanted them to walk away with, what would that be?
KH: Ooh, that’s a good question…that family is what you make it.
Thanks again to Katori for sharing her insights and inspirations, while also putting a spotlight on the competitive hot wing world we enjoy every year in Memphis. The Hot Wing King is running at the Signature Threatre (New York) through March 22. Tickets can be purchased here.
Copyright: 2020 World Championship Hot Wing Contest and Festival