Co-author and director Tina Landau, Co-author Tarell Alvin McCraney
Steppenwolf Theatre through July 14. www.steppenwolf.org .
Whether the effort was performative or real, Chicago witnessed history in the early 1990s when Joan Jett Blakk, an African American drag queen who was the creation of activist Terence Smith, ran not just for Chicago Mayor, but in 1992 ran for president of the United States. If a failed businessman with a bad TV show can win, why not Blakk?
The campaign was an in-your-face denunciation of the status quo, a Queer Nation visibility effort that made it all the way to the floor of the Democratic National Convention in New York City.
Now, in all its glory, some of it a little modified from the actual history, is a stage production that is joyous, emotional ( remembering those peak years of the AIDS crisis ), musical and wonderfully executed. Steppenwolf presents Ms. Blakk for President, and this show is highly recommended.
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and Tina Landau, the show was created by Landau after she read the book Out and Proud in Chicago, edited and cowritten by Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim. Landau, also the show's director, was immediately inspired by the Blakk campaign.
"I didn't want to start the piece at all until I had contacted Terence ( Joan Jett Blakk ) and had his blessing and support," she said in an advance press statement. "We connected, and he told me his story, in his words, over hours and hours, and that formed the basis for our starting the work. It's a Chicago story, it's a true story, it's an untold story. It's a queer story. It's a political story. As someone who was alive at the height of the AIDS epidemic, I wanted to do this piece both to honor Terence and the 'army of lovers' at ACT UP and Queer Nation, as well as in memory of dear friends lost at the time. It's for them."
On the opening night it was so great to see both the original Blakk in the audience ( Smith came in from California ), and the city's new mayor, Lori Lightfoot. What an incredible arc of history sitting in that roomsomeone who ran for mayor and president when people laughed at the concept, and someone who won in 2019, less than three decades later, as an openly lesbian, African American woman.
This is a Chicago story, and it's great to see LGBTQ history told that isn't just about the coasts. Especially as the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, it's important to remember that cities all over experienced their own versions of Stonewall, both before and after 1969.
McCraney also plays Blakk, and what a role it is. He simply shines as Blakk, channelling her courage, dignity and personal challenges.
All of the actors have very physically demanding parts to play, most of them in high heels. In addition to McCraney in the lead role, the terrific additional cast are Patrick Andrews, Molly Brennan, Daniel Kyri, Jon Hudson Odom and Sawyer Smith. It is sad that more of the lesbian power of Queer Nation, and in support of Blakk's campaign, was left out.
The staging is perfect, it's as if we're in a bar, and many of the seats are right around a runway in the middle of Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre. Scenic design is by David Zinn, costume design ( including Tamara Fraser's original Joan Jett Blakk campaign t-shirt ) is by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Heather Gilbert, sound and original music by Lindsay Jones, and projection design by Rasean Davonte Johnson.
Both the lobby and the theater are decorated with posters and fliers from the early 1990s Chicago scene, especially Queer Nation and protest stickers, but also, powerfully, the names of people lost to HIV/AIDS. The lobby also has a timeline of LGBTQ rights and the fight against AIDS. The entire experience, from lobby to pre- and post-show dancing, recreates some of the power, passion and life-and-death reality of 1992 Chicago. Click your heels together and get on down to Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre.