Steppenwolf Theatre takes the expression “setting the scene” to new heights with its production of MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT. Based on the 1992 presidential campaign of Chicago drag queen Joan Jett Blakk, the show transforms Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre into a wild combination of drag cabaret, campaign rally and disco dance party.
The lobby, too, is part of the scene. An exhibition traces the history of America’s LGBTQ movement, Blakk’s mayoral and presidential runs, the AIDS crisis and the 1990 birth of the direct-action movement Queer Nation. Among other pre-show novelties, an actress performs the entire Wizard of Oz story for a crowd that includes everyone from outrageously dressed, gender non-conforming folks to Steppenwolf subscribers of a certain age. Co-authors Tina Landau (who also directs) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (who plays Blakk) have truly crafted a circus-like event.
Steppenwolf Theatre capture a moment
Once seated, the audience is treated to drag dancing on a runway-style stage and assorted acts on the sidelines. Then the chants begin: “We’re going to get this party started…You get to be queer here…We’re queer, we’re here and we can’t live in fear.” Thirty years ago, alternate sexualities were marginalized at best and criminalized at worst, and politicians largely ignored the raging AIDS crisis. Much has changed since then – and much remains the same. But this 2019 show captures a moment when Queer Americans decided that they would no longer tolerate invisibility.
Embodying that spirit, Joan Jett Blakk – stage persona for artist and activist Terence Smith – became the Queen Nation Party candidate for President. Specifically, the show centers on Blakk and her cohorts crashing the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City to call attention to their cause. When it finally moves from spectacle-driven speechifying to this particular story, MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT becomes an engaging human drama.
MS BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT in stilettos
It’s fascinating to watch this drag queen get past Madison Square Garden’s security guards while DNC Chairman Ron Brown and New York Governor Mario Cuomo are speaking (actual footage on video screens), finds herself doing her makeup and donning an American flag dress and stilettos in a men’s restroom stall, and finally making a statement on the convention floor – with her own cameraman filming it.
Within Queen Nation and the LGBTQ community, there are competing and conflicting voices. We get a taste of them in these scenes. In this viewer’s opinion, they are worthy of more attention, as is the personal journey of Blakk as she moves from her Chicago haunt to a national stage. There’s also a fair amount of repetition and preaching to the choir. But for those who are curious about this little-known chapter of Chicago history – and enjoy disco dancing and fabulous drag garb – MS BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT is a show to catch.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, Patrick Andrews, Molly Brennan, Daniel Kyri, John Hudson Odom, Sawyer Smith
Tina Landau (director & co-author), Tarell Alvin McCraney (co-author), David Zinn (scenic designer), Toni-Leslie-James (costume designer), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (sound designer), Rasean Davonte Johnson (projection designer), Penny Lane Studios (wig design) Gigi Buffington (voice & text coach), Polly Hubbard (dramaturg), Brianna Parry (production manager), Christine D. Freeburg (production stage manager), Kathleen Barrett (assistant stage manager)
Now through July 21th
Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:30 PM
Saturdays & Sundays at 3 PM & 7:30 PM
Wednesdays at 2:00 PM
Steppenwolf Theatre Upstairs
1650 N. Halsted St.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.