Terence Alan Smith, the Detroit native behind the drag persona Joan Jett Blakk, is still taken aback that a portion of his life has been transformed into a world-premiere play at Steppenwolf Theatre.
MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT travels back to 1992 when the Chicago chapter of the protest group Queer Nation endorsed Joan Jett Blakk as the nation's first drag queen candidate for President of the United States. One of her campaign slogans was "Lick Bush in '92."
"It's not something you would ever expect that somebody would do," said Smith about the play. "Usually people, when this kind of thing happens, are dead already."
But Smith and Joan Jett Blakk are still very much with us. Smith was just one of many luminaries like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot who were in attendance for the opening night performance of MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT earlier this month.
Smith also returned to Chicago this past weekend as Joan Jett Blakk for two late-night Lookout Series performances in Steppenwolf's intimate 1700 Theatre. Blakk, along with co-host Babette, held court as talk show hosts and were feted by the MS. BLAKK cast and creative teamespecially by the Academy Award-winner Tarell Alvin McCraney ( the play's title star and co-author ) and Tony Award-nominee Tina Landau ( the play's director and co-author ).
"I wasn't ever sure that anyone got it," said Smith about his political drag activism. When Smith as Blakk first ran for Chicago Mayor in 1991 and then the next year as president, it was largely to draw attention to the LGBTQ community at the height of the AIDS crisis.
"There were so many wild things that happened along the way," said Smith, remembering both terrifying and welcoming moments during his Chicago years of protest. "It's weird how emotional it is for me."
For instance, Smith said it was not uncommon for police to remove their badges so they couldn't be identified when roughing up ACT UP or Queer Nation protesters in mass demonstrations. But he also remembers kind gestures, like when Illinois Senator John Cullerton shared his spot in Chicago's St. Patrick's Day Parade so Joan Jett Blakk could participate.
MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT focuses on Smith as Blakk trying to gain entry to the 1992 Democratic National Convention at New York's Madison Square Garden. Not only does the play focus on Smith's moments of self-doubt, but also the potential for real violence at the hands of convention security.
"On the convention floor, I thought they'll swoop me up and I'll disappear," Smith said. "But doing drag is very much like armor. You're afraid, but you feel invincible because you are so visible. It was both fear and excitement."
Chicago's harsh winters are what pushed Smith to relocate to San Francisco in 1993. There Blakk joined the gay African-American performance group Pop Afro Homos and ran as drag candidates again for president and San Francisco mayor. She also did a live drag talk show.
"I did it up until about 2000. I really haven't done much drag since then," Smith said. "I kind of viewed it as something that I did."
Joan Jett Blakk's 1990s political campaigns were mostly noted in the LGBTQ press at the time, even including a mention in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Joan Jett Blakk later received attention in books like L.M. Bogad's 2007 scholarly journal Electoral Guerrilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements, and in the 2008 historical overview Out and Proud in Chicago edited by Tracy Baim ( publisher of the Windy City Times and the Chicago Reader ).
It was Blakk's photo on the cover of the latter book that spurred Landau and McCraney to reach out to Smith and ask his permission to create MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT. Smith is grateful to be remembered, especially when he considers that so many other drag performers have been forgotten.
"I'm really big on drag history now more than ever," Smith said. "The people who were doing drag in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. My god! What would it have taken to go to a drag ball? We think that we're brave. I think about that and all the unsung heroes and heroines who don't get mentioned at all."
In terms of contemporary drag, Smith said he doesn't follow the current TV phenomenon of RuPaul's Drag Race too closely. Yet he does enjoy Drag Race alums Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova in their online comedy show UNHhhh. Smith also had loads of praise for the talent and LGBTQ advocacy of stars like singer/songwriter/choreographer Todrick Hall and Tony Award-winner Billy Porter of Pose fame.
Smith is also surprised every now and then to run into people who remember Joan Jett Blakk during her heyday of visibility and activism.
"The best thing about it is that people have said to me, 'Because I knew about and was following Joan, it made my coming out easier,'" Smith said. "That was not a goal of mine, but when it does happen it's so wonderful."
And as someone who survived the worst of the AIDS crisis, Smith can't help but think "about all of my friends who aren't here anymore who would have loved [MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT]."
"Tarell and Tina got it. They really took this moment in historya moment in my lifethey really understood and it comes across quite well," Smith said. "It's very humbling and very flattering."
MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT continues through Sunday, July 21, in the Upstairs Theatre of Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Performance schedule varies, but largely at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 2 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $20-$94. Call 312-335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org .