Review:“Ms. Blakk for President”

Tarell Alvin McCraney (Joan Jett Blakk) in Steppenwolf’s world-premiere production of “Ms. Blakk for President,” co-written by ensemble members Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney, conceived and directed byTina Landauin the UpstairsTheatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Performances run through July 14. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through July 21
Tickets: $20-$94
Phone: 312-335-1650

Theater critic

“Ms. Blakk for President” made me want to know more about Joan Jett Blakk, a.k.a. Terence Alan Smith.

That’’ both a compliment and a criticism of the world premiere by Tina Landau, who also directs, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who also plays the title character.

It’s also a big shout out for McCraney’s performance. Probably best known as the Academy Award-winning author of the script on which the film “Moonlight” is based, as well as such plays as “Choir Boy,” he is a brilliant actor who vividly and rivetingly brings to life both Ms. Blakk, the queer black drag queen political candidate and activist, and Smith, the smart, hesitant man who created her.

Conceived by Landau and developed using interviews with the real Smith, who now lives in San Francisco, and associates, “Ms. Blakk for President” arguably is as much a performance piece as a play. The director and designers David Zinn (sets), Heather Gilbert (lights), Lindsay Jones (sound and additional music), and Rasean Davante Johnson (projections) have transformed Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre into a wild blend of nightclub and convention hall.

A fashion-show runway zigzags across the room, flanked by chairs right along it, cafe tables, and couches, as well as sections of more traditional theater seating. Posters for Queer Nation, which sponsored Blakk, ACT UP, and other activist organizations and causes plaster the walls. The action, which Landau describes in a program interview as “a party, a rally, a remembrance, a song,” takes place all over the theater. And, including McCraney, six actors in fabulous costumes by Tani-Leslie James (and wigs by Penny Lane Studios) play all the parts.

Although Blakk’s hitherto little-known story is rooted in Chicago and includes a 1991 run for mayor against Richard M. Daley, “Ms. Blakk for President” picks up with the 1992 presidential campaign. But rather than being a straightforward account, it’s a blend of semi-realistic encounters, speeches, hallucinatory dream sequences, and scenes that might have happened but didn’t. At times, there’s not enough context or backstory to keep it all straight.

We do learn, though, that Blakk’s campaign was intended as a farce to draw attention to the farcical political system and the the AIDS crisis, which generally was being ignored. Running on the slogan “Lick Bush in ’92,” she advocated hiring the jobless to build houses for the homeless, legalizing all drugs but taxing them heavily, and turning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over to AIDS organizations.

The goal was to get on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in an American-flag mini dress and make a speech. Sections of the 100-minute work deal mainly with setbacks, ranging from confrontations with the police to interference from backers, among them Queer Nation campaign manager Mark (Patrick Andrews) and promoter Lenny (Molly Brennan). We also meet friend J.J. (Daniel Kyri), who puts Smith up in New York and films his activities, and Glennda (Jon Hudson Odom), who interviews Blakk for her tv program. These and others tend to be cartoons, deliberately, though it would be nice if the most important ones were more fully developed.

The peak of the process is Smith’s almost ritualistic transformation into Blakk in a men’s room at the DMC. This and the scene leading up to it, provide the only real insight into his past and personality. A self-described goody two shoes and teacher’s pet in school, he reveals that David Bowie transformed him into his true queer self — whereupon his idol appears as Ziggy Stardust (Sawyer Smith). Much earlier, Sawyer Smith impersonates Marilyn Monroe breathily singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy in 1962, a fantasy that helps set the tone for what’s to come.

Understanding the courage required for Smith to become Blakk and follow through on a commitment to action, even knowing its probable futility, is the most moving aspect of the evening, and McCraney’s subdued demeanor here stands in stark contrast to his initial appearance as Blakk in flamboyant fuschia and black. There’s also a poignant coda in the form of a surprising filmed interview.

While “Ms. Blakk for President” strikes me as underdeveloped and chaotic at times, it’s also a fascinating experiment in form and thoroughly engaging. Be sure to come early (15 or 20 minutes) for pre-show entertainment that includes singing (mostly lip-syncing to iconic pop), dancing, poetry, and a healthy dose of raunchiness. Sawyer Smith’s fierce drag routine, performed with all the flexibility of a ballet dancer, is a stunner.

A final note: Jos N. Banks replaces McCraney for the last week of performances.