Playwrights: Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney
At: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. . Tickets: 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org; $20-$94. Run through: July 14
The past roars to the present in Steppenwolf Theatre's world premiere of Ms. Blakk for President. Co-authored by ensemble members Tina Landau ( who also directs ) and Tarell Alvin McCraney ( who also stars in the title role ), this raucously out and proud play vividly shines an theatrical spotlight on a lesser-known piece of LGBTQ American history to defiantly speak to our own times.
Back in 1992, the Chicago-based African-American drag queen Joan Jett Blakk ( aka Terence Smith ) publicly announced a run for U.S. President. Though many would write it off as an attention-grabbing stunt akin to that era's protests by ACT UP and Queer Nation, it was a big deal to Ms. Blakk and her shoestring staff — especially as they all tried to appear on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in New York.
That's the basic plot of Ms. Blakk for President, but Landau and McCraney expand the whole experience into other theatrical realms. One minute you're part of a performance art happening ( complete with installation pieces in the lobby ) or at a drag/dance revue. The next minute, you're attending an impassioned protest rally led by Blakk lambasting Republican indifference to minority communities dealing with AIDS and poverty.
Through it all is a wonderfully irreverent queer camp comic sensibility. The laughs lighten the dramatic flashes of peril at the hands of police, while also enlivening other debates on censorship and inner turmoil on self-doubt.
The whole cast gets across the anger and exuberance of the era. Patrick Andrews, Molly Brennan and Jon Hudoson Odom are great as bickering activists, while Daniel Kyri is endearing as JJ, a limber loved one who is dragged along for the ride. The very flexible Sawyer Smith gets to float on and off as many fantasy characters in Toni-Leslie James' fabulous costumes ( many would be the envy of any RuPaul's Drag Race contestant ).
Landau and her production team create a free-wheeling and rough-around-the-edges event that is steeped in history ( take time to look at all the period fliers recreated by set designer David Zinn and marvel at projection designer Rasean Davonte Jonhnson's curated videos ). Yet the show is also very much about today, and Heather Gilbert's sometimes confrontational lighting design forces the audience and onstage artists to take a serious look at themselves.
With Ms. Blakk for President, it's clear that Landau and McCraney don't want audiences to forget earlier activists who fell and fought the good fight for more LGBTQ equality. And as McCraney's galvanizing title performance attests, we need noisy risk takers to forge a path for others to follow.