- Ms. Blakk’s Radical Queer History
I arrive at Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Lincoln Park location on a steamy evening in June 2019 ready to party. When I purchased my ticket for the world premiere production of Ms. Blakk for President by Tina Landau and Tarell Alvin McCraney several weeks earlier, I deliberately chose to sit in something called the “party zone.” According to the theatre’s website, the “party zone” promised an interactive experience that would fully immerse spectators in the electric energy of the show. While audience members would not be asked to join performers on the runway stage erected exclusively for the production, the website stated, there was a possibility that we could be directed to add to the chorus of cheers and jeers, hoots and hollers. Making my way to the company’s Upstairs Theatre, a flexible space designed specifically to foster a more intimate relationship between spectator and actor, I warm up my vocal chords. Being described in the promotional materials as “part campaign rally, part nightclub performance, part confessional—all party,” I wanted to be able to respond enthusiastically when the time came to participate.1
A festive atmosphere awaits in the theatre’s cozy lobby. Thumping dance music catches my attention first, and then the bar, where people are hovering and sipping on beer and wine. Plastered along the walls are layers of photographs, stickers, posters, and other ephemera accented by neon hues. There is a lot to take in. After doing a quick scan of the entire space, I decide to linger at an especially striking black-and-white poster. At its center is a commanding photograph of Ms. Joan Jett Blakk, the drag persona of performance artist, musician, bodybuilder, and activist Terence Alan Smith. The image captures Joan perched with her legs crossed, sitting in one of the high-back peacock chairs that Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton helped make iconic in the late 1960s. Donning black boots, black pants, and a black turtleneck complemented by dark sunglasses, dark lipstick, and a thick Afro, Joan cradles a white makeshift gun, which, along with [End Page 64] her tough facial expression, suggests that she is not somebody to mess with. The slogan printed across the bottom (“By any means necessary”), borrowed from Malcolm X, serves to affirm this assessment, and, perhaps more importantly, to underline the poster’s central message: “Joan Jett-Blakk for President.” As far as campaign materials go, this poster, with its artful invoking of the history of black radicalism, is especially clever and compelling. I study the poster so closely perhaps because of what it suggests about the personality and energy of the candidate and campaign at the center of the evening’s performance. Traversing the length of the thoughtfully curated lobby display reveals more and more about Ms. Joan Jett Blakk and her 1992 bid to become the U.S.’s first black drag queen president. I am particularly tickled and intrigued by artifacts featuring the campaign’s bawdy slogan: “I Want You, Honey! Lick Bush in ’92!”
When the announcement comes that the house has opened, I follow the crowd into the theatre and locate my seat. The party is already underway, with the music now blaring even louder and a few people moving throughout the space, dancing to the irresistible beat. I join them, shimmying my shoulders while marveling at the details of the florescent environment, conceived by designer David Zinn. The walls are saturated with evidence of the “image events” that activist collectives and grassroots groups such as ACT UP, Queer Nation, and Gran Fury crafted in the 1980s and 1990s to combat the threats facing members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities, including the HIV/AIDS pandemic, incessant attacks from the political right, and everyday harassment and violence on the street.2 There are photocopied flyers of Gran Fury’s “Read My Lips” graphics on display, alongside bills announcing the release of Marlon Rigg’s 1989 documentary Tongues Untied and signs spotlighting some of Queer Nation’s cheeky mottos: “I’m Your Worst Fear, I’m a Fed Up Queer” and “Queer as...