Charm: Sentimental Etiquette Schooling for the Homeless LGBTQ Leaves Us Homeless As Well.
Based on an actual transgender woman, Miss Gloria Allen who volunteered her time at a Chicago LGBTQ community center on Halsted teaching etiquette to a mostly homeless LGBT youth group, Charm, the new play by Philip Dawkins (About Face Theatre’s The Homosexuals) at the MCC Lucille Lortel Theatre down on Christopher Street feels perfectly placed and timed. This is a play that brings more transgender people to the front and center in a fairly honest depiction than I have ever seen in any play before. And that’s huge. Just for that one fact this play should be celebrated. Charm let’s them shine and also act out in all their glory, and gives us a window into their troubled but brave existence. The play, a bit chaotic in its direction by the trans-identified director and choreographer, Will Davis (ATC’s queer reimagining of Inge’s Picnic), balances the tight rope walk between education and entertainment by informing casually within solid and authentic conversations and complex relationship building. The play gives us plenty to chew on, as all sorts are in the room, and even though most of the kid’s stories are only lightly teased out and too many questions are left unanswered, the appeal of all lifts us up and shakes us awake from our privileged lives.
Playing the teacher with Charm, ‘Mama’ Darleena Andrews, Sandra Caldwell (the Dora Award nominated Sterling Productions’ Sophisticated Ladies) gives us a highly sassy and powerful creation. She is a 67-year-old, black, transgender woman who takes it upon herself to teach an etiquette class at Chicago’s LGBTQ Center. Her history though is fuzzy, with details blurred into something of a false feel-good story for her students. Her fairy tale is created all for the lifting up of this class of characters that basically are in the room because there might be some free food. She southern-charms us with her over-the-top delivery, and somehow she manages against all odds to connect with these troubled kids, and with us. It’s a compelling portrait of a fighter and a survivor, that borders on the edge of too much. I wish there was a bit less affectations, and far more realness in her at moments throughout, but the scenes when we finally get a glimpse of the real woman beneath the wig, it feels satisfying, engaging, and pure.
The real trouble I had with Charm, is that there are so many characters in this piece that deserve attention and exploration. We get a glimpse into the desperation of Ariela, played beautifully by the transgender actress, Hailie Sahar (Amazon’s Transparent) that only leaves us wanting to know more. Her need and pain is breath-taking to get a whiff of, and although she is given so many moments to shine, the overall story of her existence is lacking. The same could be said of Jonelle, played by the very tall, “proud, gender non-conforming trans-woman of color”, Jojo Brown (ATC’s Goldstar, Ohio) and the curious young gay man, Logan, wonderfully portrayed by Michael Lorz (Northern Stages’ Into The Woods). Their compelling relationship that develops throughout is exciting to witness but basically left for our imagination to sort out. Marquise Vilson (the web series “Skin Deep”), as the troubled and confused Beta is given a bit more story-line in Act One but in the end, Beta is left to his own devices to figure his future out, in the same way we are. Just like Donnie and Victoria, precisely and finely played by Michael David Baldwin (film: “Coup d’Etat“) and Lauren F. Walker (Public Theater’s Julius Caesar). There story, fleshed out at the beginning of Act Two is refreshing, unique, and fascinating, but it is left along side all the others out on the streets of Chicago. The most compelling character (for me), Lady, played with nervous eccentricity by the non-binary actor, Marky Irene Diven (The Glass Menagerie) just teases us with questions and tentative peeks inside her character. I wanted to know much more, but her identity remains a mystery. As it stands, all these actors give smart and affecting performances drenched in complicated histories but in the end, Charm and the playwright leave us with more questions than insights.
Clearly a great deal of thought and energy went into this compelling production. The cast, in its makeup is obviously progressive, and should be applauded. Just like the actors themselves who are as brave as the characters they play. MCC has also blessed this production with the most wonderful and professional design team. Set designer, Arnulfo Maldonado (Roundabout’s Kingdom Come), alongside costumes designer, Oana Botez (LCT3’s Bull in a China Shop), lighting designer, Ben Stanton (MCC’s The End of Longing, Yen), sound designer, Palmer Hefferan (2ST’s Friend Art), and hair, wig and makeup design by Dave Bova (Broadway’s Indecent) have given us a solid and wonderfully created experience. It’s a shame the play falters as much as it does in the second Act. With the conjured appearance of Emily Post (Diven) in a bed of flowers, the play veers off into unnecessary side streets, abandoning the real and most complex stories, just like society has done to the homeless youth in this play. Even D, the wonderful Kelli Simpkins (Kaufman’s The Laramie Project) can’t save these souls left to flounder on their own. We get a feel-good ending, but at the cost of all these other lives. My companion at intermission was concerned how we would have time to explore all these great intricate and inexplicable stories in Act Two, and he was right to be concerned. This play should be toasted for tackling some difficult situations and a much ignored LGBTQ community, but Charm left them as homeless as when they first entered the classroom.