“The most transparent way is the truth.”
Tarell Alvin McCraney is telling me about the circuitous journey that led him and longtime collaborator Tina Landau to the real-life character of Ms. Joan Jett Blakk. That’s “two t’s, two k’s,” as she reminds us during her run for president at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, where McCraney and Landau are both ensemble members.
The two have worked together since 2004 and initially planned to reunite to remount McCraney’s 10-year-old play Wig Out with McCraney starring, only to find that the moment had somewhat passed them by.
“Ten years ago, when we were looking at Wig Out, the language around gender and nonconformity and transitioning were so different; so much so, it was hard even casting it then,” McCraney tells The Root. “And now, I’m 38 … there were no roles in it for me anymore—which is great, because now, we can put a whole bunch of new, amazing talent in it when we do it.”
For those unaware of McCraney’s acting prowess, it’s likely because he’s best known as the amazing talent who co-authored the screenplay for Barry Jenkins’ groundbreaking 2016 film Moonlight, based on his semi-autobiographical play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The gorgeously wrought narrative garnered Moonlight the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay statuettes for McCraney and Jenkins (and landed both on the 2017 Root 100).
In the brief time since, McCraney has gone on to write the 2019 Netflix sports film High Flying Bird (directed by Steven Soderbergh), and create the upcoming OWN series David Makes Man, set in his native Miami.
But his latest work, Ms. Blakk for President, is, at its genesis, a Chicago story. Conceived, co-authored and directed by Landau (a 2018 Tony nominee for directing Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants) it tells the almost surreal but true story of Ms. Joan Jett Blakk, the now nearly forgotten drag queen who ran for president in 1992—and made it all the way to the floor of the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. There, she greeted delegates by telling them she was running for president and that then-presumptive nominee Bill Clinton should debate her.
As the play’s synopsis reads:
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 everyone has 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 trailblazers.
“If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?” McCraney, portraying Blakk, quips.
In life, Joan Jett Blakk was the drag persona of black gay activist Terence Allen Smith, who, after running for mayor of Chicago in 1991 (as Jett) against incumbent Richard M. Daley (who would be re-elected five more times), was compelled by his compatriots at Queer Nation Chicago to take their fight for greater queer visibility and AIDS advocacy all the way to the White House.
Their campaign slogan? “Lick Bush in ’92.”
This is where Ms. Blakk for President opens, on Smith’s 35th birthday and campaign announcement (minimum age for the U.S. presidency being 35). For those familiar with the troubling statistic that the life expectancy of most black trans women is 35, it was a striking reminder. Though Smith is not trans, the risk one takes to present as gender nonconforming was not lost on the Steppenwolf audience—which on press night included an understandably emotional Smith, as well as new Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her wife, Amy Eshleman.
If Pride Month is one to celebrate, it is also one of remembrance. This Pride Month marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, led in large part by activist and self-proclaimed drag queen Marsha P. Johnson (along with Sylvia Rivera). Along with a timeline of the LGBTQ-rights movement staged in the Steppenwolf’s lobby, Johnson is paid special tribute in Ms. Blakk for President; sadly, she was found mysteriously drowned at age 46, a mere eight days before Smith crashed the DNC wearing drag on July 14, 1992.
Johnson, who was at one time banned from the gay rights parade her rebellion spawned, is belatedly getting her flowers with rightful tributes and a recently announced monument in New York City. But how is it that the nation—or at least, Smith’s native Chicago, had all but forgotten about the performer and political upstart known as Ms. Joan Jett Blakk?
“Listen, I went to school here [at DePaul University]. I lived in Chicago for seven years, and prided myself on learning the history of Chicago,” McCraney tells me. “And also, as a black, cis-gendered man who identifies as queer, I was like, how dare I not know this? Like, I know the bee’s knees of niche, queer history and activism, and the fact that this was sitting right in front of my face—I mean, some of these things literally happened in the buildings that I walked and went to school in … and I had no clue.”
“It was amazing to me that a person from a disenfranchised community—a community that was hit hard by HIV and AIDS, and really feeling ignored by the government—found a way to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to make them listen. We’re gonna get heard somehow,’” he later added. “And that that part of our history, as black people in this country, is buried. It felt like a disservice that we didn’t know about it; it felt like a disservice that it hadn’t been something that we’re taught.”
Set in the early ’90s with the era’s club scene as its backdrop, the specter of HIV-AIDS looms large over the otherwise buoyant, at times bombastic production that is Ms.Blakk for President, as the crisis was then at its height. (Similarly, the second season of FX’s Pose will return us to the same era.) Less a traditional play than ensemble-led cabaret of sorts, the audience is taken on the musical, magical, multimedia carpet ride that is Joan Jett Blakk’s campaign, rife with rejection, memory, respectability politics and its fair share of icons (several of whom are played by the remarkably versatile Sawyer Smith).
“It’s a theatrical event,” says McCraney. “We needed something that was immersive and was going to put you into the sort of swirl and power of that moment. And also, to remind us that the heartbeat of that time and this time are similar; that the liberties and the freedoms that we thought in between those times were secure are actually up for grabs again. So, putting us back in that place is a little unsettling, but it needs to happen; because we are there, whether we want to know it or not.”
It’s a reality difficult to ignore, as eerily clear parallels are drawn, nearly three decades apart—for instance, the election of a man credibly accused of sexual harassment to the highest court in the land, who now sits alongside another. (Oh, wait; I guess we have one of those in the Oval Office, too.)
But for all the historical lessons, cogent reminders and outright nostalgia, the heart of Ms. Blakk for President is Smith’s story and sensitivity, even in the midst of formidable odds.
“I realize that the gay people that went before me made it easier for me to come out, and our generation makes it possible for the next generation to come out,” Smith told Steppenwolf’s cameras ahead of the play’s opening. “It’s a wonderful thing to hear, that things you did made it easier for other people,” he said, tearing up.
McCraney feels much the same, telling me, “For me—and I told Barry Jenkins this, after the Academy Awards—I can’t quantify what Moonlight has done; I leave that to the folks who are more qualified than me. But, as Nigel Shelbys go disappearing in the night from being bullied, I can’t stop. I can’t stop. I can’t read articles about [Dwyane] Wade and Gabby Union being so good to all of their children, and then reading the comments about how integrating a queer child into heteronormative family is too lenient. Like, I have work to do.”
“I can’t look at the spectrum, because I’m in it,” McCraney continues. “There are literal lives on the line; we can’t have any more of these young people who are taking their own life. We can’t have any more of these parents who are disregarding those lives …What else can we do but help build a better future for someone?”
Ms. Blakk for President, starring Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Tina Landau is in production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company through July 14. Tickets are available here.