At the Steppenwolf Upstairs

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – “MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT” is part lesson in recent American social history and part a LGBTQ Mardi Gras-style party. But underneath the show’s outrageous in-your-face sexuality there is a cry for tolerance for all those males and females who fall outside the lines of conventional sexual attitudes.

Prospective ticket buyers who are uncomfortable mingling with drag queens and listening to blatant sexual double entendres could be put off by the play’s flash and sizzle. But considering the publicity the show has already gotten, it’s unlikely a theatergoer would enter the Steppenwolf expecting an exercise in Chekhovian drama.

“MS. BLAKK” is the result of a partnership between director Tina Landau and playwright-actor Tarell Alvin McCraney. The two built their theatrical bash on the political activities of a Chicago drag queen (real name Terence Alan Smith) adopted the profession name of Joan Jett Blakk. Angered by the abuse people of her sexual persuasion were enduring, Blakk decided to run first for mayor of the city in 1990 and then President of the United States in 1992. Landau and McCraney shaped incidents and ideas from Blakk’s improbable political campaigns into the show now on offer at the Steppenwolf.

For this production Steppenwolf’s Upstairs theater has been converted into a sort of night club with the audience arranged in various kinds of a long  irregular-shaped stage. The early portion of the show is a faux erotic burlesque performance with the actors gleefully directing songs, dancing, and patter at the spectators. Needless to say, the ultra willing audience happily laughs, cheers, and applauds the most salacious repartee.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Gradually the free form performances coalesce into a narrative of how Ms. Blakk tried to gain national publicity through the media of the day by running for mayor and then president. As one of the characters states, they are out to reclaim Queer from a term of contempt and ridicule to an honorable name for their lifestyles.

Hovering over the show’s outward flamboyant humor is the specter of the AIDS epidemic ravaging Anerica. During the early 1990’s thousand of young men were dying of the plague while mainstream America, especially the political power structure, refused to recognize the crisis, much less offer any assistance or remedy. This reach for national recognition peaked in New York City in 1992 when Blakk and his associates tried to breach the Democratic presidential nominating convention in Madison Square Garden, demanding access to the floor to plead their case, even securing press credentials.

The production used actually scenes from the convention televised from the actual convention, mixed with the confrontations between the LGBTQ interlopers and the authorities, in the force of a bullying policeman. The show ends with a serious, sometimes mourning monologue by Blakk, minus his drag costume and sitting alone and mournful, abandoned by his colleagues. The show ends with a brief and touching epilogue provided by Terence Alan Smith today.

The show, at least for local audiences, might benefit from more attention to Blakk’s campaign against Richard Daley for the mayor of the city in 1990 and 1991. The emphasis on the New York political convention has some talky spots that slow down the momentum of the show. For now the play works best at a high energy rather than in a reflective level. The physical production is jazzed up with flashy lighting and the projections and film clips shown on overhanging television sets and against the theater’s back black wall. The characters move constantly in the aisles, often kibbitzing with the patrons.

The carnival atmosphere begins with patrons who enter the theater well before the show’s starting time. That gives them time to gawk at denizens of the LGBTQ community circulation in the lobby and outside the Upstairs theater in all their finery. The displays of heavily made up, begowned men put on quite a mini show on their own. Cast members also perform for groups of spectators, music hall style, there are informational posters and illustrations plastered on the walls to further break down barrier between the viewers and the players.

The star if the show obviously is McCraney, statuesque and ultra hip in high heels, gaudy dresses and a bleached wig, happy to exchange saucy observations with all comers and possessing a very creditable singing voice. When he steps out of his drag queen persona and becomes Terence Smith, McCraney is thoughtful, articulate, and even low keyed. He is supported by a versatile quintet of talented actors—Patrick Andrews, Molly Brennan, Daniel Kyri, Jon Hudson Odom, and Sawyer Smith. They all make the show look and sound improvised and inevitable, a tribute to Landau’s directing and McCraney’s writing.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

The show owes much to its cluster of designers, who give the staging such an exotic (and erotic) ambience. Props go to David Zinn (set designer), Toni-Leslie James (costume designer), Heather Gilbert (lighting designer), Lindsay Jones (sound design and additional music), and Rosean Devonte Johnson (projection design).

Audience reaction to this show will depend on individual taste. The audience at my performance was clearly in sympathy with all the hoopla on stage as well as the message of tolerance and acceptance that surfaces throughout the evening. Some attendees may support the pleas for tolerance but feel that the performances flaunted too much outrageousness its own sake, a self indulgence in behavior and costume that distracted from the positive themes. These visitors may wonder why the LGBTQ community needs so much flamboyance and profanity to make a case self evident in its merits. The answer might be that the over the top behavior is an expression of who they are and what sets them apart. I suspect they don’t demand the audience’s approval, just their right to be accepted for who they are.

It seems highly unlikely that “MS. BLAKK” will offend many people who will enter the Steppenwolf with the full knowledge and anticipation of what they will see and hear. The show succeeds as a good time evening garnished by a lot of raunchy humor. The message is there for those willing to absorb it, and the evocation of the AIDS crisis remains a “lest we forget” cautionary tale for all of us.

The show gets a rating of

Ms BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT” runs through July 14 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $94. Call 312 335 1650 or visit

Contact Dan at                       June 2019

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