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Steppenwolf’s latest tells the story of the first black drag-queen presidential candidate

Written by
Alex Huntsberger

Longtime collaborators Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney wanted to make a new show together, but they weren’t sure what it was going to be. Then, Landau, a director and playwright, came upon the story of queer African-American activist Terence Smith and his drag alter ego, Joan Jett Blakk, who ran for president of the United States in 1992. (Blakk’s slogan: “Lick Bush in ’92!”)

“I started pointing at the book and jumping up and down and saying, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ ” Landau recalls. Together, she and McCraney wrote Ms. Blakk for President, based loosely on the night Blakk declared her candidacy. It’s a play that is also a party, a happening and a political gathering, Landau says.

“This is queer form,” she notes. “It resists the binary. It’s not just that or this—it’s this and that.” The show’s in-your-face approach echoes Smith’s work with ACT UP, Queer Nation and other activist groups. (The stage design features a zigzagging fashion runway surrounded by “party zone” seating, a first for Steppenwolf Theatre Company.) “We are introducing a voice in Terence, and a set of characters around him, that are not often depicted onstage and who have very out-there ways—sometimes flamboyant, sometimes politically aggressive—of approaching life,” she adds.

Landau is directing, and McCraney is moving outside his usual boxes, starring in the production as Blakk. Although he acted in a few Chicago shows after graduating from DePaul, including in Landau’s 2004 Steppenwolf piece, Theatrical Essays, McCraney is known mainly as a playwright and screenwriter. (Moonlight, inspired by his short play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, won him an Oscar in 2017.)

Directing McCraney’s plays over the past decade has kept Landau familiar with his acting talents. “Over the years, there’s always come a moment on each project in which he performs the whole work for me as a solo piece,” says Landau. “He really takes the deep dive. He’s unafraid to splay his soul on the stage or the page.”

Catch Ms. Blakk for President at Steppenwolf through July 14.

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