Stages

Review: Ms. Blakk for President Is a Raucous Campaign Rally and Reminder of the AIDS Crisis

Chicago had a candidate in the ring during the 1992 presidential election. Ms. Joan Jett Blakk ran for the Democratic nomination that year. What? You don’t remember her? She won zero votes on the convention floor, but she raised awareness of and support for LGBTQ rights and the AIDS crisis that killed more than 20,000 people in the U.S. in 1991 and again in 1992 and rose to almost 50,000 per year in the ‘90s.

Steppenwolf Theatre is celebrating Ms. Blakk for President in a raucous, raunchy, rambunctious political party in the Upstairs Theatre. The play is the work of co-authors Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Landau directs and McCraney stars as the drag queen, bewigged in blonde and costumed in stiletto heels and micro-miniskirts.

Jon Hudson Odom as Glennda and Tarell Alvin McCraney as Ms.Blakk. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The play honors the life of queer activist Terence Alan Smith and his drag queen alter ego Joan Jett Blakk. The story opens in Chicago where Queer Nation has an urgent agenda. The AIDS crisis is at its peak and they want to bring national visibility to the need for attention, prevention and a cure. Ms. Blakk, who ran for mayor against Richard J. Daley in 1991, announces her candidacy. A sliver of the story takes place in Chicago (Landau and McCraney could write another play based on the Chicago phase of the Smith/Blakk and Queer Nation story).

Responding to reporters’ questions, Ms. Blakk spells out her economic policy (which I commend to the 23 candidates seeking the 2020 nomination).

Legalize everything and tax the fuck out of it.

The Democratic National Convention is about to start in New York and campaign manager Mark (Patrick Andrews) wangles plane tickets and a place to stay for Ms. Blakk and the small crew. Even with press passes donated by Lenny (Molly Brennan), a gay publisher, the team can’t get into Madison Square Garden, so they find other ways to make an impact. And so they do, eventually prevailing on nominee Bill Clinton to mention the need for AIDS funding in his acceptance speech.

Sawyer Smith. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

That’s the plot line. The 100-minute spectacular takes place amidst music, dream sequences and a parade of fabulously costumed characters who strut, kick and parade on the zigzag runway that cuts through the theater space. Ms. Blakk for President is one part campaign rally, one part punk party and one part heartfelt plea for LGBTQ rights, AIDS funding and grief over the thousands of lives lost. The production approaches brilliance but the script needs another rewrite to smooth out the bumpy spots and enhance the main message.

The six-member cast becomes a multitude of characters. The fabulous Sawyer Smith appears in several glorious costumes to dance and perform as Q and then as Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie, among others. Jon Hudson Odom plays Blakk’s supporter Glennda with swagger. Daniel Kyri is JJ, their New York host and videographer.

David Zinn gets four stars for the way his scenic design creates an atmosphere. Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design, Heather Gilbert’s lighting and Lindsay Jones’ sound design and original music add exceptional style. And of course, Toni-Leslie James’ costumes and Penny Lane Studio’s wigs are stunningly camp. Finally, Brittany Powers, Hanna Wisner and Amanda Fields get big props as dressers and makeup consultants for dozens of quick changes.

Tarell Alvin McCraney, who received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2013, is better known as a writer because of his screenplays for the Oscar-winning Moonlight and the Netflix film, High Flying Bird, and his script for the Tony-nominated play, Choir Boy, which closed in New York recently. His other plays include The Brother/Sister Plays Trilogy and Head of Passes. He is chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.

Terence Alan Smith, a Detroit native, lived in Chicago from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s. He worked as an actor and drag performer at clubs like Berlin and Lower Links and was a founder of the Chicago chapter of Queer Nation. He lives in San Francisco now and worked with Landau and McCraney on the script about his life as Joan Jett Blakk.

Ms. Blakk for President has been extended through July 21 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets are $20-$94 for performances Tuesday-Friday. (The lower prices are rush and discount tickets.) You can choose from traditional seating or party-zone seating made up of cabaret tables, couches and other seating next to the stage.

2 replies »

  1. Read your review, saw the performance of “Ms. Blakk”, perused the Steppenwolf website materials, and read the playbill. The show was pretty darned good as performance art and a useful vehicle for Mr. McCraney to earn time-on-stage. That said, it was lacking in my opinion and just didn’t measure up as well done theatre. The playbill asserts the piece was to be experienced not just seen and on that basis it succeeds. However, for me anyway, it failed to focus on Ms. Blakk, or Marsha Johnson, or HIV/AIDS, or politics, or non-binary people, or Stonewall, or gay pride, or any number of other topics touched on and given a lick and a promise. By scattering its energy widely, the show became just a veneer, a spectacle devoid of much content and leaving us without a question to ponder. Unfortunate. But Tarell is pretty to look at and we got to see much of him. That is not to be disparaged. But I’m still hungry.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I loved the spectacle of Ms. Blakk for President, but I agree that it would benefit by adding substance and fleshing out those issues. Perhaps your comment will serve as a note to the playwright/director.

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