Review: In ‘Ms. Blakk for President,’ a Winning Losing Campaign
CHICAGO — When he began appearing in clubs here in 1974, Terence Smith wasn’t trying to fool anyone. At 6-foot-9 in heels, with a bobbed blond wig barely hiding his dreadlocks, he wasn’t aiming, as the Cheryl Lynn disco hit that became a drag rallying cry put it, “to be real.”
Nor was he trying to win, when, 18 years later, in his drag persona of Joan Jett Blakk, he sought the Democratic nomination for president. The slogan: “Lick Bush in ’92.”
But if a black gay drag queen had no chance at victory, Blakk’s campaign was more than a merry farce. Beneath its falseness, it was somehow genuine, suggesting the possibility of a different kind of success buried within conventional failure.
That doubleness is both the subject and method of “Ms. Blakk for President,” the uplifting hot mess of a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and Tina Landau that opened on Monday at the Steppenwolf Theater Company. By any standard measure, it falls short of coherent drama. But by the nonstandard measures that drag has always lived by, it may be just as valuable as something else.
Realness certainly isn’t the aesthetic. Though partly drawn from recent interviews the playwrights conducted with Mr. Smith, “Ms. Blakk for President” is no documentary. For that, you might spend time in the theater’s lobby, where an illustrated timeline of gay liberation and loss provides context, particularly about the drag and trans cultures that often get erased from such stories.
Inside, Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theater is itself in drag. Unrecognizable as the place where I saw Bruce Norris’s “Downstate” eight months ago, it features a raised runway zigzagging through the middle of what used to be the audience, with cafe tables, couches and conventional seats scattered around and amid the action. As designed by David Zinn, it approximates the bars and clubs in which Blakk, played by Mr. McCraney, literally made a name for herself.
By the time the play’s action begins, she had already used that name to further her political goals and have fun. In 1991 she ran for mayor against Richard M. Daley, a race that put the unlikely pair on a magazine cover as the “King and Queen” of Chicago.
So when the local branch of the recently established advocacy group Queer Nation seeks to disrupt the 1992 Democratic convention in New York City as a way of bringing attention to gay rights, Blakk, in her fuchsia faux Chanel, seems a natural figurehead, sweet and sour and sure to be noticed.
“If a bad actor can be elected president,” she declaims, “why not a good drag queen?”
Her not unreasonable platform: Fire everyone in Washington, hand the C.D.C. over to Act Up, hire the jobless to build houses for the homeless and legalize all drugs but tax them heavily.
“Ms. Blakk for President,” which Ms. Landau conceived and also directs, is an impressionistic record of Blakk’s “true mock” campaign, staged as an old-fashioned drag burlesque show. There are comedy bits, fabulous costumes (by Toni-Leslie James) and musical interludes, some involving Marilyn Monroe (Sawyer Smith) as a tutelary spirit. These tend to upstage the main story, in which Blakk tries to get onto the floor of the convention at Madison Square Garden to make a speech.
If that thread of plot, slim to begin with, quickly frays — it was not even clear to me, until a later scene spelled it out, whether Blakk made it onto the floor in reality or fantasy — it’s because the authors are more interested in what happens along the way, and in how we tell queer stories.
From the preshow variety acts to the postshow dance party, Ms. Landau makes sure we understand Blakk’s quixotic campaign in the context of a culture that makes magpie victories from scraps of found material. In a way, this was also the aesthetic of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” which Ms. Landau directed in 2017.
As in most drag shows, subtlety is not the aim here. Blakk’s antagonists are cartoons, whether fascistic police officers or mainstream gays embarrassed to be represented by someone so proudly and disreputably “queer.” Blakk’s supporters are hardly more dimensional, generally spouting familiar agitprop or evoking the shouty agenda battles that have always bedeviled liberation movements.
But in quieter moments, Mr. McCraney, both as author and performer, fills in some of the emotional blanks. He certainly makes a stunning sight in Blakk’s outfits, an effect somehow enhanced by makeup that replicates Mr. Smith’s cracked front teeth. At other moments he is not afraid to show us — as he did in his Tony-nominated script for “Choir Boy” — the confusion and pain of even the proudest outsider.
That vulnerability in drag’s enamel shell is beautifully dramatized in the play’s best moment, when Mr. McCraney, in a men’s room at the Garden, transforms from Mr. Smith to Ms. Blakk in a sort of religious ritual.
“This is my body and it is queer,” he says, before getting his lipstick on
More than anything, that self-acceptance is what “Ms. Blakk for President” wants to model. The cast members — who also include Patrick Andrews as a Queer Nation activist, Molly Brennan as a gay cable network producer, Daniel Kyri as a nerdy videographer and Jon Hudson Odom as the drag performer Glennda Orgasm — appear in and out of various disguises that mostly let their own personalities show through. They demonstrate what it might look like if everyone relaxed about their gender presentation and stopped trying to police what other people find pleasurable.
Policing what other people find pleasurable is basically a critic’s job description, but I admit that “Ms. Blakk for President” defeated my attempts to judge it. Like Mr. Smith, who ran again for president in 1996 and for other offices since, the play subverts conventional ideas of success and failure. When “living is an act of resistance,” as the authors write, a culture — no less than a play — succeeds just by surviving.
Ms. Blakk for President
Through July 14 at Steppenwolf Theater Company, Chicago, Ill.; 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.