Q&A: Tarell Alvin McCraney On Starring in Steppenwolf's 'Ms. Blakk for President'

By J.P. Anderson | May 10, 2019 | Culture

Academy Award winner and Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney makes a riotous return to the stage in the world premiere of the hyper-relevant Ms. Blakk for President.

Photo by Jeffery Salter/Redux

True story: In 1992, a Chicago drag queen named Joan Jett Blakk ran for president of the United States against George H.W. Bush, putting queer politics squarely in the national spotlight. Twenty-seven years later, the story feels as relevant as ever, inspiring Steppenwolf Theatre’s Tina Landau to collaborate with fellow ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney (whose star has risen ever higher with his 2017 Academy Award for the screenplay of Moonlight) in a raucous theatrical tale that captures both the political fervor and the party vibe of that moment.

As McCraney prepares to take on the role of Ms. Blakk herself— the celebrated playwright’s first Steppenwolf stage role since Theatrical Essays in 2004—he recently chatted with Michigan Avenue about his Steppenwolf family, why acting is “terrifying” and what makes Ms. Blakk a must-see. Premium seats $94, May 23-July 14, 1650 N. Halsted St., 312.335.1650

What about this story made you feel like it had to be told?
When Tina brought it to me, I had never heard of it—not only the story, but the events leading up to the story—which was embarrassing, because I pride myself on trying to know as much as possible about queer history and queer black history in particular. The fact that I had no clue about it made me feel like, This is why we should make sure these stories don’t go unheard.

This is the first time you and she have co-written something together.
We’ve worked together in collaboration so many times that it doesn’t feel that foreign. One of the first jobs I had out of undergrad was with Tina, working on a piece called Theatrical Essays in which [the ensemble] conceived or worked together with her to create its themes and monologues and speech.

What is it about the dynamic between you two that has been so fruitful?
People ask that all the time. It’s one of those things where you sort of don’t look a gift horse in the mouth—it works, so we just keep working it.

In Ms. Blakk, you’re back onstage after a few years of being in the spotlight for your writing. How does it feel to be acting again?
It’s terrifying. There no other word for it—it’s terrifying. [laughs]

How do you approach it?
Doing my best to tell the story will be my focus. But that never stops the fear. The funny thing is, I feel as anxious and nervous about my writing; it’s just that I get to do it alone somewhere. That’s the difference with acting—you have to be afraid with people. You have to embrace that. Otherwise stories won’t get told.

With the state of the world in terms of politics, gender and race, you almost couldn’t make up a timelier story. What do you think people will take away from it?
What I hope they walk away with is that there are people in the past who put their lives on the line for the very things we are now arguing and debating, and that as much as we’d like to think that circumstances change, a lot of those circumstances have remained the same and actually helped intensify why we’re in the current situation. Have we made enough room for everyone to feel like they have a voice and they’re being seen? I don’t know that we have—I don’t know that we’ve worked to make a more perfect union and establish justice and ensure the domestic tranquility. And now I look back and go, Wow, even then there was this pressure and need to stand up and speak and be seen and disrupt, and how do I say to the generation that came before, ‘The work that you started, I haven’t picked it up yet’? The only way to do that is to pick it up and do it.

With your success with Moonlight, are you looking more toward film these days?
I’m always doing a play or working on a play—we’re closing Choir Boy [at Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway] in a week and a half—but there are some stories that lend themselves to being serial in a way that you can’t do in plays. It’s difficult to do that in any other medium except television— ’television’ in quotes because now television encompasses streaming. Then there’s the feature world; certain stories need to live in a very visual landscape and need to be experienced in a large visual and auditory setting... and then there are stories that only work when you tell them in front of folks, and that’s really the question: What does the story need?

What impact has the Steppenwolf ensemble experience had on you as an artist?
It provides community. I don’t think there’s been a project that I’ve worked on when I’m not engaged at least at some point with a Steppenwolf ensemble member. It’s good to know that there’s someone who gets you and understands where you come from in terms of your artistic sensibility.

Last question: Why should Chicago theatergoers see Ms. Blakk?
It’s about an exciting and beautiful part of Chicago history. It’s something to be said that there was a person who almost got on the ballot for the presidential election from Chicago. We’re always trying to illuminate more of who we are, and more of who the city is.

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