Review Roundup: Ms. Blakk for President at Steppenwolf Theatre; What Did The Critics Think?
Steppenwolf Theatre's Ms. Blakk for President is now on stage!
MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT is co-written by ensemble members Tina Landau (SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight, Academy Award). Conceived by Tina Landau, she also directs this true and little-known Chicago story that stars Tarell Alvin McCraney as Ms. Joan Jett Blakk. Joining McCraney in the cast are Patrick Andrews, Molly Brennan, Daniel Kyri, Jon Hudson Odom and Sawyer Smith.
Inspired by the true story of America's first black drag queen presidential candidate, Joan's story begins in Chicago; it's 1992 and, with the AIDS crisis at its height, Joan and the newly formed Queer Nation Chicago have big goals in mind. Joan sets off on an exhilarating and dangerous journey to drag queer politics out of the closet and into a future where ALL are visible and ALL have a place at the table. Part campaign rally, part nightclub performance, part confessional, and all PARTY!, MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT takes us into the heart and mind of one of Chicago's most radical and influential citizens.
Previews began May 23, 2019 (opening is June 3 at 7pm) and the production runs through July 14, 2019 in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St. Press Performances are Monday, June 3 at 7pm and Wednesday, June 5 at 7:30pm. Single tickets ($20-$94) go on sale to the public Friday, March 15 through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.
Let's see what the critics have to say!
Jesse Green, NY Times: 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.
Jean Albright, Windy City Times: McCraney also plays Blakk, and what a role it is. He simply shines as Blakk, channelling her courage, dignity and personal challenges. All of the actors have very physically demanding parts to play, most of them in high heels. In addition to McCraney in the lead role, the terrific additional cast are Patrick Andrews, Molly Brennan, Daniel Kyri, Jon Hudson Odom and Sawyer Smith. It is sad that more of the lesbian power of Queer Nation, and in support of Blakk's campaign, was left out. The staging is perfect, it's as if we're in a bar, and many of the seats are right around a runway in the middle of Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre. Scenic design is by David Zinn, costume design ( including Tamara Fraser's original Joan Jett Blakk campaign t-shirt ) is by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Heather Gilbert, sound and original music by Lindsay Jones, and projection design by Rasean Davonte Johnson. Both the lobby and the theater are decorated with posters and fliers from the early 1990s Chicago scene, especially Queer Nation and protest stickers, but also, powerfully, the names of people lost to HIV/AIDS. The lobby also has a timeline of LGBTQ rights and the fight against AIDS. The entire experience, from lobby to pre- and post-show dancing, recreates some of the power, passion and life-and-death reality of 1992 Chicago. Click your heels together and get on down to Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre.
Jesse Green, New York Times: 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.
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: Moreover, this is very much a local story told in a home-town theater company, located on the same street, even, as many of the establishments where Ms. Blakk campaigned. I think this show, which pretty much ignores the mayoral election, begins far too late in Smith's story, meaning that we don't understand enough about his origins or the formation of this character - in reality, the presidential campaign was an extension of something already achieved. It's hard to get a full grasp of Ms. Blakk for president of the United States without first understanding Ms Blakk for mayor of Chicago. She was born of this city and nurtured by the risk-raking radicals and writers of the early 1990s; had the show started earlier and gone deeper, and been constructed more in biographical research, we could learned more about our origins and ourselves.
Catey Sullivan, Chicago Sun-Times: "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.
Rachel Weinberg, BroadwayWorld: While MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT's narrative flounders in certain points, the play's integrity never flounders. Watching the play unfold, there's no denying the relevance of the issues that Blakk faced in 1992 to today's society. But the play brilliantly conveys that resonance while also still maintaining a light-hearted and celebratory tone worthy of the story that it portrays.