I cried helplessly in silence…
Inside the theatre decked out in pink and glitter and strobe lights, I sat quietly and cried. I was witnessing (yes, witnessing, not simply watching) the much anticipated Steppenwolf Theatre play Ms. Blakk for President. Based on (but not completely bound by) true events that sprung forth from my beloved Chicago in year 1992, this play moved me to tears. To my right, my guest, a brilliant young queer woman of color was captivated and engaged by the storytelling on stage. To my left, a gray-haired seventy-something white woman quietly wiped her eyes, visibly shaken. I knew how she felt.
The play steam rolls me. Last line? “Live. Because they don’t want you to…” I am utterly gutted. In fact, it takes me several days to come up with words to describe my reaction, to formulate my thoughts… Just live. Inspite of those who’d rather see you dead, or worse, not see you at all. Inspite of those who consider you a sub-human wretch. Just… live… I am old enough to remember the apex of AIDS crisis.
A little known story of Ms. Joan Jett Blakk is imminently worth of your time and attention. In 1992 she fought her way onto the delegate floor of Democratic National Convention, wearing a dress made of an American flag no less. And there she declared her campaign for President of the United States. A drag queen for President? Yes. “A Chicago story, a queer story, an AIDS story – one whose time has come and whose time was now. … When most people in America wanted to look the other way, after ignoring the AIDS crisis and the rights of the queer community, Ms. Blakk insisted that attention must be paid.” ~Anna D. Shapiro, Steppenwolf Artistic Director.
Author and Director Tina Landau shares: “I didn’t want to start the piece at all until I had contacted Terence (the real Joan Jett Blakk) and had his blessing and support. We connected, and he told me his story, in his words, over hours and hours, and that formed the basis for our starting the work. It’s a Chicago story, it’s a true story, it’s an untold story. It’s a queer story.It’s a political story. As someone who was alive at the height of the AIDS epidemic, I wanted to do this piece both to honor Terence and the “army of lovers” at ACT UP and QUEER NATION, as well as in memory of dear friends lost at the time. It’s for them.”
We live in tumultuous times. Rights, human and civil, are challenged before our very eyes. Some of us choose not to see. I choose to keep my eyes wide open. I hope to live. Long enough to witness the future where ALL are visible. Where ALL have the right to simply exist as their own authentic selves. Where closets are reserved for jackets and dresses, not for human suffering.
I sat in a theater decked out as a night club, watching queer and straight actors alike effortlessly weave the story of life or death, the story that is my contemporary, that is inspired by history not fiction. And I cried like a child. Compassion, human kindness and empathy should know no limits. So, I cried for my queer family, for whom I will go down swinging if/when the need arises. Maybe it is high time for a new Ms. Joan Jett Blakk to stand up and command our attention.
Live. INSPITE of those who don’t want you to… An army of lovers cannot lose!
Dedicated to my good friend Janee, who is brave and outspoken and honestly WILL change the world one day. Thank you for always correcting my pronouns.
Ms. Blakk for President is now playing (through July 14th, 2019) at Chicago’s own Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Tickets are available here. GO NOW.
The Local Tourist tickets for two courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre.
Photos: Michael Brosilow