My head is still spinning, thanks to the always innovative and risk taking Steppenwolf Theater. Their creatively high octane world premiere of “Ms. Blakk for President” is a colorfully impactful gem.
Written by Steppenwolf ensemble members Tina Landau and Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Ms. Blakk for President” relays the largely unknown and untold story of Joan Jett Blakk, the drag queen who ran against Richard M. Daley for the office of Chicago Mayor in 1991 (“the boss in lip gloss”) and then in 1992 as the Queer Nation Party’s candidate for President (yes, against Bill Clinton).
Ignored by the Reagan and Bush administrations, a spotlight is thrown on the AIDS and gay rights issue, and there’s some masterful mix-in of actual videos of the Democratic National Convention speakers Bob Hattoy, Elizabeth Glasser, Jesse Jackson, and Maxine Waters. Glasser’s clip is especially heartbreaking as she was dying of AIDS at the time.
But this incredible non-stop 100-minute production is not just campaign rally, nightclub party performance, or confessional—it’s a story of perseverance, morality, standing up for what’s right, and remembrance of those who paved the way.
And it’s all done with love, hilarity, political savvy, and Terence Smith’s, aka Joan Jett Blakk, blessing. I know because that very kind and humble man sat right in front of me.
In what has to be an incredibly draining and demanding role, but then again he co-wrote “Ms. Blakk for President,” Tarell Alvin McCraney is both Ms. Joan in drag and Terence out of drag. The 6-foot-9 McCraney is an intelligent, confident, enthralling and captivating actor. The kind you can’t look away from. The kind that makes you believe. And hope.
McCraney is supported by a vibrant, strong, beautiful ensemble of lip sync dancers and singers, the most brilliant being Sawyer Smith. He’s tall, leggy, capable of doing the splits, and is a marvelous Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie , characters who act as Joan Jett Blakk’s vision guides.
Daniel Kyri is the sweet, loyal to the end J.J., and Jon Hudson Odom is the wonderful, infamous cable TV star Glennda. Patrick Andrew’s campaign manager Mark, portrays all the hurt, fear and grieving Blakk recognizes; you hate him, you like him, but most of all you understand him. And Molly Brennan, who may break the fourth wall when she asks if we’ve noticed the lack of big female parts in this production, is incredible as Lenny, the saavy media mogul who represents a divided gay community, but gets Blakk into Madison Square Garden.
With this production, the Upstairs Theater has had a stunning makeover with David Zinn’s scenic design. Along with traditional seating, there is an interactive runway with side seating,(comparable to the New York/Paris fashion week layout) and cabaret style couches and tables. You’re only inches away from the action.
Toni-Leslie James’ costume design is a rainbow of glittery gorgeousness. It all works and it’s all complemented by Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design and projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson. It’s the total package!
It’s a well known principle that well directed plays do not appear to have been directed at all. Kudos to Landau for the pacing, the exhilarating flow, and the total understanding of what her characters must achieve.
Actor Jeff Daniels said “we go to the theater to have an experience and to see things that we don’t normally see. We want people to leave affected....” Yes, “Ms. Blakk for President” is that experience; please take a walk on that runway!
• Regina Belt-Daniels loves theater and has appeared in or directed over 50 productions in the Northern Illinois area. She currently is directing RCLPC’s summer show, “Morning’s at Seven” and is awaiting the release of Mike Preston’s political comedy “Citizen Dick” in which she appears as Senator Karen Spelosi. She serves on the It’s Showtime Huntley Advisory Board, the RCLPC Board, and is a retired Raue Center for the Arts Board member and officer. This is her 200th review.