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‘Ms. Blakk for President’ walks a powerfully fine line between realism and a really good time

The drama, with more song-and-dance numbers than some musicals, is part drag pageant, part drag ball and part lip-sync extravaganza.

Tarell Alvin McCraney as Joan Jett Blakk in Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “Ms. Blakk for President.”
Tarell Alvin McCraney as Joan Jett Blakk in Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “Ms. Blakk for President.”
Michael Brosilow

Director Tina Landau and playwright/Oscar-winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”) have written a play that — like the art of drag — delights in flouting the rules of tradition.

“Ms. Blakk for President” is part drag pageant, part drag ball and part lip-sync extravaganza. It is a drama with more song-and-dance numbers than some musicals. It contains elements of religious ritual, political rally and docudrama. It is campy and deadly serious. It is a realistic and hallucinatory multi-genre-pile-up that unfolds on a runway worthy of Fashion Week. The contradictions are apt: Like the life of its titular subject, “Ms. Blakk” is not interested in coloring inside the lines or maintaining the status quo.

If you were in Chicago in 1991 you might remember Joan Jett Blakk, drag queen alter-ego of Terence Alan Smith. Smith-as-Blakk ran for mayor against Richard M. Daley, scoring a cover story in Chicago’s New City cover along the way. After failing to take City Hall, Blakk ran as Queer Nation’s candidate for president in 1992. That indefatigable campaign helped put a spotlight on the AIDs crisis and gay rights issues — both of which had been lethally ignored by the Bush administration and the Reagan administration before that.

Conceived and directed by Landau, written by Landau and McCraney and starring McCraney as Terence Smith and Terence-as-Joan, “Ms. Blakk for President” dances between fever dream and straightforward realism as it follows the titular candidate to the floor of the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

Blakk wasn’t really celebrated as a hero in 1992, even though she made history and played a key role in forcing Washington to pay attention to a disease that would have been Public Enemy No. 1 had it hit straight people with the force it the LGBTQ community. Ronald Reagan never so much as said the word “AIDs” during his presidency. George H. W. Bush’s “family values” didn’t include gays. Blakk schools them both in “Ms. Blakk,” advocating for the power of chosen families and demanding Queer Nation take over the Centers for Disease Control.

The cornerstone of the production is McCraney as Terence, both in and out of drag. He’s got an almost ineffable light to him, a quality that is remarkably compelling. When Terence or Joan speaks, you hear a voice steeled through with genuine power.

Tarell Alvin McCraney steps into the role of the real-life Joan Jett Blakk in “Ms. Blakk for President” at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Tarell Alvin McCraney steps into the role of the real-life Joan Jett Blakk in “Ms. Blakk for President” at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Michael Brosilow

It’s a doubly demanding role. As Joan Jett Blakk, McCraney is confident, brash and outspoken, a flamboyant fashionista decked out in head-to-toe Chanel and five-inch stilettos. Terence is more somber, especially when he’s stripped down to his skivvies, face scrubbed of makeup, hunched in a men’s room trying to summon the courage to don a dress he handles with the gravitas of a liturgical garment. The powerful scene illustrates the stark contrast between Terence and his drag persona and the heart they both share.

Landau’s ensemble morphs in and out of various roles. Daniel Kyri is endearing as JJ, enlisted by Blakk’s campaign primarily for his New York City apartment. Sawyer Smith embodies peak fabulousity as Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie, both of whom serve as sparkly spirit guides to Blakk. Jon Hudson Odom is memorably bitchy as Glennda, a drag queen TV personality with a savvy sense of self-promotion. As a gay media mogul who thinks Blakk might damage his brand, Molly Brennan shows how a divided gay community fought against its own interests.

The design elements are spot-on. David Zinn’s runway set is a tribute to drag’s legendary galas and pageants where creativity, fashion and performance art merge. Projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson intercuts the action with footage from the actual ’92 DNC Convention (watch for historic clips of Maxine Waters and Jennifer Holliday).

In all, the production is a celebration of Blakk and a vast community of LGBTQ+ rights advocates, who, generation after generation, rightfully demand their due.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.