Neon shades of violet—not rainbows—radiate from Tarell Alvin McCraney and Tina Landau’s world-premiere docu-party celebrating the true story of queer activist Terence Alan Smith, aka drag queen Joan Jett Blakk. That choice of color in David Zinn and Heather Gilbert’s euphoric and chaotic scenic and lighting design feels like more than just a chic and clubby aesthetic choice: staged at a time when mainstream American culture is advancing the rights of some queer communities while regressing them for others, Landau’s production recalls, via loudspeakers and bold-type signage, real-life historical rallying cries for the margins of the margins.
In 1992, those came from organizations such as ACT UP and Queer Nation, which rallied on behalf of people whose life expectancy did not allow for incrementalism or center-right apologists within the Democratic Party. Set during Blakk’s 1992 protest bid for the White House, McCraney (who also stars as Smith/Blakk) pays homage to the punk spirit of Smith’s activism without losing sight of her vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Mixing traditional, beat-by-beat narrative, metatheatrical asides, and fantasy sequences in which Marilyn Monroe (Sawyer Smith) offers cryptic, prophetic inspiration, Ms. Blakk for President plays out like a visual and narrative kaleidoscope of Ms. Blakk’s journey to the Democratic National Convention floor. It inspires and agitates and proselytizes, even if the plot at the center is relatively slight.
I’m not convinced that’s really a negative, though; in unearthing this lesser-known story, McCraney and Landau showcase the work of a queer pioneer who damn well knew she wouldn’t reap the awards of her labor, and dug in her heels, anyway. v