Steppenwolf's well-intentioned 'Ms. Blakk for President' falls short of a win

  • Writer/actor Tarell Alvin McCraney plays the titular role in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "Ms. Blakk for President," which he co-wrote with director and fellow ensemble member Tina Landau.

    Writer/actor Tarell Alvin McCraney plays the titular role in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "Ms. Blakk for President," which he co-wrote with director and fellow ensemble member Tina Landau. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 

"Ms. Blakk for President" -- ★ ★

Shortly after the dancing, lip-syncing and nightclub-inspired revelry preceding Steppenwolf Theatre's impassioned "Ms. Blakk for President," just before the curtain rose opening night, cast member Molly Brennan approached a wall dotted with hundreds of stars.

Writing the name "Mike Mitchell" next to one of them, she raised a votive candle in salute. Cast members repeat the action before every performance to honor people lost to AIDS. Eclipsed by the party atmosphere that animates this combination gay rights rally, drag dance party and bio-drama, the gesture reflects the essence of the play.

Conceived by director Tina Landau and co-written by Landau and Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney ("Moonlight"), "Ms. Blakk" is an homage to the LGBTQ community's unsung and fallen. But it celebrates one person in particular: Chicago drag queen Joan Jett Blakk.

Blakk, the creation of activist Terence Alan Smith, entered the political arena in 1991 when she ran for mayor against Richard M. Daley. The following year, in an effort to draw attention to the escalating AIDS crisis and LGBTQ rights, she threw her wig into the presidential politics ring as the Queer Nation candidate. The sparsely plotted hybrid follows Blakk -- who likens her campaign to an Oscar Wilde-style farce -- from Chicago to New York City, site of the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

Drag queen presidential candidate Joan Jett Blakk (Tarell Alvin McCraney), center, and her entourage are refused entry to the 1992 Democratic National Convention in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "Ms. Blakk for President."
Drag queen presidential candidate Joan Jett Blakk (Tarell Alvin McCraney), center, and her entourage are refused entry to the 1992 Democratic National Convention in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "Ms. Blakk for President." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow
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McCraney plays the titular role. And like the rest of Landau's cast -- Patrick Andrews, Brennan, Daniel Kyri, Jon Hudson Odom and Sawyer Smith -- his performance is impassioned and heartfelt.

It's a credible, complex performance that marries the glib, audacious candidate Joan -- resplendent in a pink jacket, black leather skirt, sky-high heels and pearls -- with the more reflective Terence, who seems less secure and more lonely than he lets on.

But passion isn't enough. Inspiring as the story is, as earnestly as it's depicted, the underdeveloped "Ms. Blakk for President" remains a work-in-progress. McCraney and Landau's script has wit along with a healthy dose of camp. The play, however, seems unsure of what it wants to be and the tone feels inconsistent as a result. Fantastical moments including Blakk's interactions with spiritual guides Marilyn Monroe (Smith) and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust (also Smith, who, like most of the cast, takes on multiple roles) don't quite jibe with more realistic scenes, making for some clunky transitions.

Patrick Andrews plays Mark, campaign manager for 1992 presidential hopeful, drag queen Joan Jett Blakk, in "Ms. Blakk for President" at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Patrick Andrews plays Mark, campaign manager for 1992 presidential hopeful, drag queen Joan Jett Blakk, in "Ms. Blakk for President" at Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The references to Blakk's background and motivations are vague, and the contemporary anachronisms take us out of the narrative. While it raises the issue of divisions within the LGBTQ community about how to best draw attention to their concerns (not everyone agrees a drag queen is the best person to deliver their message), the play gives them cursory attention. All of this could be addressed by another draft.

That said, an infectious exuberance underscores Landau's fast-moving production. David Zinn's set, like the show itself, is a hybrid: Papered with posters and flyers proclaiming LGBTQ pride, it's a combination nightclub (complete with mirror ball), fashion runway and political arena expressed in bright pink and stark black.

Public access cable host Glennda (Jon Hudson Odom), left, and 1992 drag queen presidential candidate Joan Jett Blakk (Tarell Alvin McCraney) vamp outside the Democratic convention in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Ms. Blakk for President."
Public access cable host Glennda (Jon Hudson Odom), left, and 1992 drag queen presidential candidate Joan Jett Blakk (Tarell Alvin McCraney) vamp outside the Democratic convention in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Ms. Blakk for President." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

The acting is equally vibrant. Andrews delivers an intensely felt performance as Joan's tireless campaign manager. The ever-charming Kyri plays sweet-tempered videographer J.J. Brennan and Jon Hudson Odom earns laughs as public access cable TV producer Lenny and drag queen Glennda, a savvy, public access TV host. Channeling pop culture icons, Smith is divalicious.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Ultimately, McCraney and Landau deserve kudos for illuminating a little-known bit of social and political history. Yet while "Ms. Blakk for President" works as an exhortation for respect, recognition and remembrance, it's not great theater. But it could be.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through July 14. Also 2 p.m. June 19, 26 and July 3. No 7:30 p.m. show June 23 and 30.

Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission, not including the preshow performances, which begin about 30 minutes before the curtain

Tickets: $20-$94

Parking: $12-$14 in the lot adjacent to the theater; limited street parking

Rating: For adults. Contains mature themes and language, sexual references and partial nudity

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