Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured (L to R): Jon Hudson Odom and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Photo by Michael Brosilow
By Sheri Flanders
Arriving just in time for Pride Month and election season, Steppenwolf Theater presents the electric and defiant “Ms. Blakk for President.” Created by ensemble members Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney, the play is inspired by the true story of Ms. Joan Jett Blakk, the first Black drag queen presidential candidate.
If you’re looking for a detailed history or pedantic regurgitation of events – watch a documentary or read a book. Cis-het people, check your privilege at the door. Not every piece of art is centered on us or created to educate us. Part-time capsule and all party, this play is an immersive experience, enhanced by sumptuous costumes by Toni-Leslie James. “Ms. Blakk for President” demands that you sit back, strap in, and enjoy the ride. And what a fun ride it is!
Upon entering the door, a Barbie Pink room with a runway in the center provides the first clue that this isn’t yet another disquieting Steppenwolf drawing-room play about some god-forsaken family that can’t be bothered to go to therapy. This is an entire CELEBRATION. Even before the show starts, Sawyer Smith struts the runway with the panache of a supermodel, charming the crowd, both lip-syncing to power anthems and giving a spectacular pre-performance that transforms the theater into the best kind of nightclub. When the show starts, Tarell Alvin McCraney takes the stage – impossibly tall and ebullient. His portrayal of Ms. Joan Jett Blakk is extraordinary, especially his navigation of the emotional arc of a person doing the impossible, yet for just a moment, believing in its possibility.
Each member of the ridiculously talented cast performs double and triple duty, playing a whole host of characters, and morphing with ease into each role, navigating dramatic and comedic without a hitch. Daniel Kyri plays JJ, a timid young man unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight and finding a hero he didn’t know he needed.
At one point Molly Brennan enters in a cowboy hat as Lenny, a local LGBT news outlet owner, and speaks to the audience, “There aren’t many women’s roles in this script” which draws a hearty laugh, and also illustrates how easily theater can begin to move rapidly towards inclusion. Most scripts are imperfect in some way in terms of representation, yet in the hands of brilliant directors such as Landau that refuse to be bound by gender stereotypes and employ gender-conscious casting, a performance can be elevated to more than the sum of its parts.
In one pivotal scene, we experience the transformation into Ms. Joan Jett and are gifted with an emotionally powerful truth. Drag is many things: self-expression, a bold statement of defiance, sometimes armor, but most importantly, an extremely vulnerable act. Drag is unapologetically presenting one’s inner self to the outside world with no guarantee of bodily or emotional safety.
Having one’s voice heard is a privilege, and those in less privileged positions are more likely to have their history erased. The fact that the history of Ms. Blakk isn’t being analyzed by pundits in the same breath with Pete Buttigieg’s historic run speaks volumes about our society. Yet on the night that I attended, the real Ms. Joan Jett Blakk (Terence Alan Smith) was also in attendance, witnessing his contribution to history being amplified by an Academy-Award-winning writer, in a nationally renowned theater. This outstanding performance and historical homage is a statement; one that draws a direct line from yesterday to a rapidly approaching future, when America will successfully elect its first “Ms. Blakk for President.”