Ms. Blakk For President is a world premiere play performed at Steppenwolf Theatre, co-written and directed by Tina Landau and written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The show is about Chicago’s very own LGBTQ activist Terence Alan Smith, better known as the drag queen Joan Jett Blakk, who decided to run a political campaign with Act Up and Queer Nation to bring visibility to the Gay community in crisis during the 90s. It’s a pretty unknown story to someone, like me, who was born in the very late 1990s without context on figures who are often censored in our pop culture. Steppenwolf’s lobby dramaturgy does a great job with filling the atmosphere and historical context about the show. The dramaturgy display (Polly Hubbard) is filled with an engaging Chicago timeline that traces Joan Jett Blakk and the AIDS crisis from the 1970s to present today. There are also a few art installations and a memorial to Marsha P. Johnson.
What really drew me immediately into this show was the set (David Zinn), it’s something I’ve never seen Steppenwolf try before. Many theatre patrons, let’s face it, are very comfortable and used to seeing a show where the audience is split by a fourth wall. The orientation of the Steppenwolf upstairs space is usually in a proscenium, meaning the audience is looking into the stage and the set resides inside a frame. Most audiences go into a show prepared to have very little interaction with the story or actor as the distance of a proscenium setting can almost be like watching a television show, which informs the audience’s behavior as well. Therefore, the set design could have been very simple and easy, but instead, the production team chose a more complected and engaging “party zone seating,” placing the stage in an alley with the audience on either side. This design, I believe, makes the show whole. Ms. Blakk’s set is free-flowing and interactive for the audience. It’s designed as if the audience has come into a Chicago club in Boystown in the 90s. I had the privilege of sitting on the runway, and it’s probably one of the best seats to sit at since this allows direct access to the vibrant dance numbers.
The set also contains four nineties-era televisions suspended above the audience that display music videos alongside historical news coverage of major events during the Bush/Clinton election. Mismatched and fun tables are arranged for the audience to sit at, and along the walls are pasted many political and empowering LGBT and pro-Black propaganda posters. When all of this is combined along with the fantastic costumes (Toni-Leslie James), sound (Lindsay Jones), and projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson), it becomes a cohesive and believable environment. It’s the pre-show that kicks the entire play off with energetic and fierce dances from each ensemble member, until Joan Jett Blakk is introduced.
I had the privilege of seeing Tarell Alvin McCraney’s understudy, Jos. N Banks play the role of Joan Jett Blakk, and he truly stole the show that night. As the lead, he brought a lot of depth, comedy, and life to a character that could come off as pretty bland. The way this character is written does not allow a lot of vulnerability or depth. I’m not interested in stories about perfect and invincible people, but Banks manages to chip away at this character to show impactful small moments of vulnerability. In fact, the whole ensemble cast (Patrick Andrews, Molly Brennan, Daniel Kyri, Jon Hudson Odom, Sawyer Smith) is dynamic and energizing as they seamlessly flip in and out of specific characters, dance, and perform poetry. It was their energy and passion for the story that made the show’s fragmented story and characters work.
In Ms. Blakk, there is not necessarily a linear storyline being told to the audience. The show is pretty fragmented, but as a viewer that did not bother me. I personally don’t mind a fragmented story, as I don’t believe Aristotle’s theories on story building should be the framework for every piece of art we see. Yet, those who care about plot and conflict might not enjoy this production as much. However, this show is fairly new, as this production is both the Chicago and world premiere. With some careful re-working this show’s story could be shaped significantly stronger. Another criticism, that the show itself even makes fun of, is the lack of women directly in the narrative. While I would have liked to hear more about women in these communities during the 90s, these narratives are sadly just now coming into the limelight. That being said, I didn’t think the show needed it. It would have felt somewhat inauthentic if somehow the writer tried to cram in a random character and pander to a specific audience if it wasn’t true to the actual story of Ms. Blakk.
Ms. Blakk For President is not just about actual politics or politicians. While It features discussions of AIDS in the 90’s and gay culture, it is always not filled with sadness or self pity. The show doesn’t even have a happy ending. Amidst all of this suffering, the heart of Ms. Blakk is about survival. It’s about showing how much society has and has not changed since 1992. It’s about how a community in desperate crisis survived and danced even at the worst of times. In the end, Joan does not win and her story has not been remembered until now. But isn’t that the case with so many marginalized groups? These stories don’t get told, but those who lived and survived these stories continue to fight anyway, regardless of who is watching.
In my experience there is an expectation that stories pertaining to people of color and other marginalized groups need to be sad. There is an unfair amount of judgment viewers and even critics place on certain stories than others to include a demonstration of pain to be seen as valid, and it has to stop. While marginalized and oppressed communities do suffer and experience many moments of intense sadness, let’s stop forcing solely sad narratives onto marginalized people – there are many ways to tell a story. I believe as Joan Jett Blakk says, “in surviving as an act of rebellion.” Survival can and should consist of laughter and dance, as well as pain. This ideology is the core of the show. Survival is complex and consists of just as much laughter and dance as pain at times, and this ideology is what Ms. Blakk for President is attempting to imprint onto the hearts and minds of its viewers.
Ms. Blakk for President runs at Steppenwolf Theatre through July 21st.
Author, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Author and Director, Tina Landau
Scenic Design, David Zinn
Costume Design, Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design, Heather Gilbert
Sound Design & Original Music, Lindsay Jones
Projection Design, Rasean Davonte Johnson
Company Voice & Text Coach, Gigi Buffington
Production Stage Manager, Christine D. Freeburg
Assistant Stage Manager, Kathleen Barrett
Photography, Michael Brosilow
Joan Jett Blakk/Terrence Alan Smith, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Mark and other characters, Patrick Andrew
Lenny and other characters, Molly Brennan
JJ and other characters, Daniel Kyri
Glennda and other characters, Jon Hudson Odom
Q, Sawyer Smith