Theater Review: MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT (Steppenwolf)

Post image for Theater Review: MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT (Steppenwolf)

by Lawrence Bommer on June 6, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


It’s both louder than life and strident with substance. The perfect play for Pride Month and a deafening blast from the past, Ms. Blakk for President, an uproarious and rambunctious rouser, gives a magnificent cause future reference. Created by ensemble members Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney for Steppenwolf, this 100-minute jubilee recreates a legendary 1992 run for the Presidency that plays right into today.

Joan Jett Blakk was the drag queen persona of 35-year-old Terence Alan Smith. He called “herself” a fusion of Divine, David Bowie and Grace Jones. Terence had previously run — as always, unsuccessfully — against the second Mayor Daley. But failure only encouraged more lavender hubris and uppity agitation. Identity politics had come into its own.

Steppenwolf’s spectacle chronicles Joan’s storied campaign with joy and wit. Its salacious motto “Lick Bush in ‘92!” was one of many sassy and subversive digs against the establishment, specifically straight shooters. Running on the Queer Nation ticket of social justice, gender equality, and action against AIDS, Joan (an unstoppable Terence Alan Smith) surrounds herself with a five-person posse, resourceful operatives and idealistic crusaders alike. Despite opposition from mainstream homosexuals who dismissed her for confirming stereotypes and alienating possible allies, Joan has designs on her own Pink House, as well as pacifist plans for an emasculated Pentagon.

The core of the controversy centers on Joan’s attempt to bite the Big Apple, specifically to infiltrate the Democratic National Convention that would nominate Bill Clinton for his first term. Defying cops and security to strut her stuff, inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s birthday serenade to JFK, and finally holed up in a bathroom, Joan vows to consecrate her body to her cause. Like Albin making up in a mirror in La Cage Aux Folles, she is who he is. Joan changes into a flagrantly patriotic gown, intent on making a grand entrance onto the Madison Square Garden convention floor — and maybe history too.

Irrepressible, unrepentant, and bent on avenging the recent murder of drag queen Marsha P. Johnson, Joan bursts into a brilliant oration, thrillingly proclaiming the imperatives of inclusion, diversity and democracy and sending a message to 2020 that minorities aren’t misfits and that gay is good.

That was the hope at least. But here, for all its hysterical hoopla and runway raving, Landau and McCraney’s reclamation effort turns more bittersweet than nostalgic. That speech never happened — all the more reason to finally deliver it. No longer making a joke of her once and future pitch for equality, McCraney’s creation is nobody’s impersonator. Keeping it real is, bizarrely enough, a cosmetic matter.

Buttressed by songs like “Queen of the City” and “The Show Must Go On,” Landau’s extravaganza is a crowd-pleasing, rip-roaring, roof-raising primo party. Brilliantly lurching from Terence Smith to Joan, Tarell Alvin McCraney is a charismatic triumph, electrifying in style and heartbreaking in soul. Backing him up as anarchic handlers, enablers, or adversaries, combustible Patrick Andrews, Molly Brennan, Daniel Kyri, Jon Hudson Odom and Sawyer Smith depict that heady summer of 1992 in all its dreamy and doomed delight. (Blakk would run again for President — “Lick Slick Willie in ‘96” — but ultimately Queer Nation would disavow him as more light than heat.)

The last words belong to today’s Terence. In a brief video that channels the spirit of “I Did It My Way,” he looks back at what was lost. Implicitly, he also gazes forward to a campaign a year from now that may not be quite so quixotic.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Ms. Blakk for President
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted St
ends on July 14, 2019
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Leave a Comment