As she walked over the confetti-coated floor of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s upstairs theater, Dania felt caught between a rock and a hard place.
On one side of her –– rather, on either side of her, while they sat on a couch during the performance –– were Eleanor and Gwen, who were excitedly violating the “100 Yard Rule” to praise the performance before they had left the building. They had joined every whoop and holler that evening, each chant of “LICK BUSH IN ’92” and “MARSHA P,” each numb silence when the story’s parallels to 2019 were abundantly clear.
On the other side of her –– rather, behind and beyond and above her, sitting in the plush seats furthest away from the raised runway stage –– were Steppenwolf’s longtime subscribers, who were making a hasty retreat from the theatre and counting the days until the company’s revival of True West opened downstairs. They had, as much as Dania could tell through the glitter, stayed fairly silent during the raucous evening, sympathetic but not particularly enraptured by the tale of Joan Jett Blakk, and her quixotic run for the presidency.
It was in the vast gulf between these shores that Dania floated, hesitant to navigate towards either. She had felt the silence of the story resonate with her –– the moments between the energetic transitions, such as Joan’s captivating and Jennifer-Holliday-accompanied transformation during the 1992 DNC. She had also expected a play that had some sort of summation of what Joan’s story meant for the audience to take away.
“It’s not really a history piece,” Eleanor praised. “It queers everything: narrative structure, character development, tonal shifts, costume design…”
“What does it mean to ‘queer’ costume design?” Dania asked. “Like, as a verb?”
“So much of the design is based on drag performers, and runway performances,” Gwen said. “That’s what the entire preshow was. I don’t think anything that happened in the ‘show’ proper––”
Gwen placed air quotes around the word “show.”
“––would have looked out of place in that preshow.”
“I like how much it was leaving this story up to interpretation,” Eleanor said. “There’s very little moralizing about how the story changed history. The audience takes that away and makes it their own.”
“There are small elements of contextual material, or opinion on the plot movements,” Gwen commented. “But yes, for the most part, I found it to be perfectly comfortable meandering through the narrative. It’s more about the atmosphere than anything else. David Zinn’s scenic design is doing a huge amount of work.”
“Just how they broke up the theatre space into a drag arena,” Eleanor pointed out. “Remember when this slot was supposed to be Wig Out!? Imagine what that would have looked like!”
“Probably not that different.”
Dania hated interrupting when she had nothing to say. But she had to find a way into this conversation, or she was certain that Eleanor and Gwen would have left her out. Eleanor turned to Dania, and her eyes revealed everything.
“Dania, did you not like it?” she asked, hesitantly.
“I think…no?” Dania hesitated, her shoulders rising.
“Was it not understanding what was happening?” Gwen asked. “I can understand how the plot can get a little confusing.”
“No, the plot…” Dania reflected back over the evening, granting the play a compliment she hadn’t considered before. “As jumbled as the play was, I did actually understand most of the plot going on.”
“It’s a simple plot within a complex framework,” Gwen continued. “The major conflict is between Joan and Mark, but there’s also the subplot about JJ, and the use of Marilyn Monroe as a guardian, the larger story of the 1992 election…”
“Yeah, I didn’t get Marilyn Monroe,” Dania said.
“What do you mean you didn’t get Marilyn Monroe.”
“Like,” Dania stumbled, “why was she there? Marilyn Monroe isn’t a queer icon. Is she?”
“She’s been somewhat appropriated,” Eleanor said. “Many figures of glamour have been. Jennifer Holliday isn’t gay, but that song she sings is an important part of Joan’s development.”
“But…what does Marilyn Monroe do in the story?”
“She gives Joan part of her quest, right?” Gwen said. “I interpreted that as Joan following the guidance of the icons she based her own personality on. Sawyer Smith in general seemed to be constantly playing roles that were representatives of an intangible idea. The entire police force, or literally Drag Uncle Sam.”
“And what was that Uncle Sam moment?” Dania asked. She was wading into dangerous territory, and she knew it –– it wasn’t often that she called out anything that Gwen and Eleanor both enjoyed.
“I thought it was the American ideal, right?” Eleanor said. “Not just Drag Uncle Sam, but the idea of America as this beacon of liberty and hope. And for that song to come, ‘The Show Must Go On,’ right before Joan enters onto the floor of the DNC, almost felt like a threat, a raising of the stakes.”
“Oh, see, I had a completely different view on it,” Gwen said. “I read the performance as a sort of distillation of the Queer Nation message. Like, if America’s vision of the future is kindly old Uncle Sam, the queer vision of the future is this high-octane, boisterous, screlting queen of a figure, who points towards Terrence at the end of the song with nothing less than a command to bring that vision forward.”
“Wow, maybe that’s it, too,” Eleanor said. “I guess it’s up to the audience to take away from it what they––”
“Hold on,” Dania suddenly interjected.
The three stopped walking, standing in the middle of the sidewalk on Halstead, as Dania wrestled with her own opinions about the play. About theatre, overall.
Her head pounded. Don’t become a Subscriber, don’t become a Subscriber…
“I, just like…” she navigated. “For a play to have a kind of…logic behind it.”
She paused. Gwen and Eleanor, without judgement in their eyes, watched on.
Dania swallowed. “I think there is definitely an internal logic to this play, or drag show, or whatever you want to call it –– you can call it whatever you want to.”
“Performance, maybe,” Eleanor said. “That might cover it.”
“Whatever you want,” said Dania. “There is some sort of rule defining how this thing works. And my opinion on the show is that, while I definitely enjoyed parts of it…like, there are some really good things here. All of the actors are stunning. Tarell, obviously, like, where do I start?”
“He’s incredible,” Gwen agreed. “And when you consider how personal this story must be, to write it and then be performing it––”
Dania caught Gwen’s eye, and her tangent ceased.
“Thank you,” Dania smiled. “There’s a lot of stuff I can like here. A lot of stuff I did like. But, like…”
Dania turned the sentence over in her mind –– the one she wanted to say, but couldn’t tell if it was too mean. She had enjoyed the evening, and yet…
“…you wanted it to be more linear and structured?”
“I like watching clips from Late Night shows, right?” Dania finally blurted out.
Eleanor raised an eyebrow, but beyond that, none of the three moved.
“Like, from Colbert and stuff,” Dania clarified. “Sometimes I find multiple interviews from the same press tour and I watch people tell different anecdotes about themselves and I learn a little more about who they are. Right? You get a better picture of who that person is.”
“Sure?” Gwen cocked her head to the side.
“So, like…I got a better picture of Joan Jett Blakk and the Queer Nation movement in the show. I think I have a more well-rounded view of the climate in 1992.”
Eleanor blinked. “Yes?”
“But that’s not, like…” Dania said, “…a play.”
“Well, what is a play?” Eleanor asked.
“It has a structure, I mean!” Dania said, and began walking again. Gwen and Eleanor kept up.
“I think there was still a structure here,” Eleanor said. “A non-linear one, but one existed.”
“But that’s not a play for me,” Dania said. “All this stuff you and Gwen are talking about, ‘maybe this was the point of that moment,’ or ‘it’s all up to the audience to decide.’ How can I say it’s a good play when I can’t even figure out why half of it is happening?”
“You can take the play…performance, take it at its own word that it all matters,” Gwen suggested. “Do you think they’d include things in the play that didn’t matter?”
“See, this is what I mean by a sort of logic,” Dania said. “I’m not saying there’s no logic behind it. But if I can’t follow the logic, it comes across as nonsense.”
“Fun nonsense!” she quickly added. “Nonsense that clearly has value and historical import and is worthy of being on stage. But I can’t follow.”
“Well, not everything is for all audiences,” Eleanor said. “If you didn’t enjoy the show, that’s fine, as long as you’re not trashing the show in theory.”
“What do you mean, ‘in theory?'” asked Dania. She indicated Gwen: “You’re the one always going off about how theatre is the act, it’s not the idea.”
“The show, for me, is more than anything that happened in the script,” Gwen said. “It’s about this space, these bodies, these stories being brought forward and cared for in this theatre. A major regional theatre. A story about Joan Jett Blakk got a write-up in The New York Times.”
“It’s powerful for queer artists to know this play has invaded a space that has historically kept them out,” Eleanor added. “This isn’t being produced by a small queer arts collective, it’s at Steppenwolf. The company that put the ‘real’ in ‘American realism.'”
“Okay, so it exists, yes,” Dania said. “I’m glad it exists. But existing doesn’t inherently make it good, or well-constructed.”
“Sure, it’s a loose structure, but that’s queer art,” Eleanor said. “That’s why the performance is half drag show. Queer art has always been about the messy, the interruption, the unvarnished –– camp, in the true Sontagian sense of it. You need the freedom to tear part of the set away and cry for your lost ancestors, like Tarell does.”
“But if it doesn’t follow any sort of critiquable format –– if you can look at the Drag Uncle Sam singing and see two completely opposing things and say both are valid, than how do you know that it was good?”
“Because it exists, okay?” Eleanor admitted.
“Existing is a victory for queer art?”
“Yes, when the alternative is not existing,” Gwen finally said. “Think about Joan’s final words to JJ, when she tells him to go into the club: ‘Live. They don’t want you to.’ That’s what the play does.”
Dania sighed. She reconsidered the conversation, replayed all her hesitant statements that had set her in opposition to Ms. Blakk, despite her love for it’s ideas. She did agree that something was grand in its goals, it’s ambitions. And yet…part of her still returned to Chekhov’s Marilyn Monroe: why include her?
“I can appreciate that it exists,” Dania said. “Maybe I’ll get to appreciating the product someday.”
“You’re perfectly okay not enjoying the show. You’re allowed to not like it,” Gwen said. “But there must be some recognition of the Power that a production like this intrinsically has. Right?”
Dania wanted to see it. As they walked, underneath the hum of Gwen and Eleanor’s continued adulation, she continued to replay a scene from the play in her mind’s eye. A person of color standing in the center of a runway, build above the boards where a hundred families have feuded, sounding a clarion call to action –– under the watchful eye of hundreds of victims of AIDS, chalked onto the walls in remembrance.
Image Credits: Sawyer Smith & Tarell Alvin McCraney / Photo: Michael Brosilow