Tina and Tarell sissy that Steppenwolf with a heartfelt queer history lesson
Theater review by Kris Vire
Tarell Alvin McCraney in Ms. Blakk for President
Upstairs at Steppenwolf, 2019’s most political party is taking us back to 1992. Conceived and achieved by Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney—and featuring McCraney’s return to the stage after 15 years away from performing—Ms. Blakk for President excavates the story of Chicago drag queen Joan Jett Blakk and her satirical run for President of the United States in the year of Bill Clinton’s ascendancy.
Blakk (civilian identity: Terence Alan Smith) had mounted a similarly quixotic run against Richard M. Daley in the 1991 mayoral election. Like that campaign (or “camp-pain,” as Blakk called it, for “putting in the camp, taking out the pain, honey”), Blakk’s presidential run was intended to draw attention to issues faced by the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups; of particular concern was AIDS, which had bloomed into a full-blown epidemic over the previous decade of presidential inattention. A cofounder of the Chicago chapter of activist group Queer Nation, Blakk ran under their banner, with the campaign slogan “Lick Bush in ’92” and promises to take the country “from clamor to glamour.”
From left: Daniel Kyri, Molly Brennan, Sawyer Smith and Tarell Alvin McCraney in Ms. Blakk for President
Landau, who came across Blakk’s story in Tracy Baim’s book Out and Proud in Chicago, brought it to McCraney as a project for the frequent collaborators to tackle together. (Landau gets a “conceived and directed by” credit, while the two share billing for the script.) The duo treats the story as a gay fantasia on themes that are still plaguing our nation, with McCraney’s Blakk leading us through an interactive, performative recounting that’s never even heard of a fourth wall.
McCraney and his fellow cast members strut across the most literal runway stage this space has seen since 2015’s Marie Antoinette, and they preen and flirt their way throughout the audience as well. (At Monday night’s opening, Sawyer Smith stretched across a row of seats to receive a cheek kiss from newly ensconced Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first queer chief executive.)
From left: Jon Hudson Odom, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Daniel Kyri in Ms. Blakk for President
As the ultra-loose narrative follows Blakk’s unlikely-but-true journey to the floor of the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden, video monitors occasionally play C-SPAN footage of the real thing to cover costume changes and other business. This device, while reminding us of the real personalities and politics at play, begins to feel like a crutch after too many lengthy deployments. And Landau and McCraney’s script has some repetitive passages—or maybe that was down to McCraney’s nerves on opening night. (Full disclosure: The last credit on my own acting résumé was also in 2004, and I’d be plenty daunted to make my return to the stage carrying a whole show on my shoulders—and in heels.)
But I was plenty moved by the sharp evocation of just how pressing a crisis AIDS was in this moment, and how indifferent most of the world seemed to be about it. I was a little too young to have grieved the loss of whole groups of friends, as McCraney’s Joan and Patrick Andrews’s urgent activist Mark did. In the summer of 1992, I was 14 years old in Arkansas, and Bill Clinton was my state’s governor; as I watched him accept the Democratic nomination, I was still four years away from coming out myself, and the terror of AIDS was one of the things keeping me in.
From left: Tarell Alvin McCraney and Patrick Andrews in Ms. Blakk for President
Much of the cast of Ms. Blakk for President, and much of the audience that will see it, is already too young to remember HIV as a death sentence rather than a manageable condition. It’s worth revisiting, and Landau and McCraney manage to convey the realities of 1992—and tie them to the political horrors of today—without feeling hectoring or entirely like they’re preaching to the choir. (At one point, Joan goes into a righteous rage about the public belittling of a woman who credibly accused a Supreme Court candidate of sexual harassment. She’s talking about Anita Hill…right?)
And one of the most affecting insights in Ms. Blakk is the divide between Joan and Terence. As played by McCraney, Terence Alan Smith speaks of his drag persona as an entity separate from himself, almost like a suit of armor he puts on. Joan is brave, he says; Joan is fierce. Terence is a rule-follower, a people-pleaser, a teacher’s pet. Joan may not have made all the impact she wanted to at the DNC, but she tried. Maybe, in these times, we all need to try harder to find our Joan.
Ms. Blakk for President
Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1650 N Halsted St). By Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Conceived and directed by Tina Landau.
Cast: Tarell Alvin McCraney (Joan Jett Blakk/Terence Alan Smith), Patrick Andrews (Mark and others), Molly Brennan (Lenny and others), Daniel Kyri (JJ and others), Jon Hudson Odom (Glennda and others), Sawyer Smith (Q).
Designers: David Zinn (scenic), Toni-Leslie James (costumes), Heather Gilbert (lighting), Lindsay Jones (sound and additional music), Rasean Davonte Johnson (projections).
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission. Through July 14. Tickets ($20–$94) at steppenwolf.org.
Photographs by Michael Brosilow