By Sandi Durell
The word has a variety of meanings, but has never been presented with such unique verve as in the current production of Charm at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Written by Jefferson Award-winning playwright Philip Dawkins, and directed by Helen Hayes Award winner Will Davis, it addresses the LGBTQ community with a spin that gets immediate audience attention.
Specifically it talks to transgender and opening a dialogue to understanding, without prejudice. When 67 year old black Mama Darleena Andrews (a truly magnificent Sandra Caldwell) offers up her help at the transgender Center in Chicago, little does she know what she’s in for. The director of the Center, “D” (a steadfast Kelli Simpkins) is more than willing to allow Mama to volunteer to run a Charm class for some of the students. What! . . . you say. Charm? Her basic premise, as a long time transgender herself, is to teach respect, etiquette (based on the teachings of Emily Post) and responsibility to the problematic students who inhabit the Center. Many aren’t quite sure who they are, on what side of the sexual spectrum they fall or want to fall and how to negotiate life and social situations with any success. And so, we find a plethora of students who are homeless, who were abused, beaten, are confused and otherwise never had a chance.
There’s Ariela (Hailie Sahar), a male to female, who earns her living on the streets with sexual favors, dressed accordingly to show off her wares – she’s colorful and a bling poster gal; there’s Jonelle (JoJo Brown) who wears outrageously short shorts, usually seen with feather wings but hasn’t decided whether to turn male; Victoria (Lauren E. Walker) is heterosexual, overweight and homeless and the baby mama of two kids with a basic upbeat attitude; Donnie (Michael David Baldwin) is a big hetero overweight guy, Victoria’s baby daddy, no job, education nor desire to change; Beta (Marquise Vilson) is mysterious and scary, keeping his secret as a female to male transgender, a gang member, tough acting and looking rapper style and there’s Lady (Marky Irene Diven), who is borderline autistic, aside from other emotional disabilities, was a male at birth and having a terrible time showing female tendencies which she desperately wants to achieve. She’s a runaway.
And these are the members of the Charm School – for now! Well, you won’t have to imagine anything, as nothing is held back as Mama gives it her all to dig in deep to help these ‘babies’ (as she calls them) face life and the innumerable challenges in their worlds of confusion so they can better understand themselves and each other. They’re a chaotic rough and tumble bunch who verbally assault themselves and each other. . . the colorful language about as low as it goes; they are as uncivilized and as lacking in charm as one can imagine.
But Mama has been there, through it all, and with all the taunting, teasing and testing doesn’t give up on her babies as she teaches them how to respect themselves and each other and what it is to be polite, caring and learn to say ‘thank you,’ along with so much other socially acceptable behavior, because the gift she’s giving them can and will change their lives. As the babies begin to respond to Mama, the changes become evident.
Enter Logan (Michael Lorz) . . . a cute, young gay guy who looks like he just walked out of GQ. He’s not quite sure why he’s there other than he read about Miss Darlin’ on Tumblr. Mama’s already got herself quite a reputation. Logan is curious. Next year he starts Notre Dame majoring in chemistry and physics. He’s a rich white boy and when Donnie enters, he says “Yo, who the hell is this?” followed by Ariella with “Who invited Taylor Swift?” Logan and Jonelle quickly find similarities and hook up.
In not too long a time, Mama has these babies setting tables, speaking more politely to each other and expressing real caring for one another, as she reaches into the very essence of their souls to produce the change that emerges. Mama is challenged by “D” because of an incident caused by Ariella’s jealousy and told she can no longer run her Charm class, part of the stress that puts her in the hospital. In a dream sequence, Miss Emily Post (Marky Irene Diven) comes alive in a bed of roses, as reality follows when all her babies come a-callin’ with flowers, dressed to the nines.
Success? Yes, Mama made the difference in the lives of transgender youth on the edge. This is an important story to tell that will go on and is only just beginning.
The story is inspired by Miss Gloria Allen, born in 1945 who became a nurse and at age 19 began living as her true gender and formulated the idea of helping transgender youth of color. She taught them how to dress, about safe sex, alcohol and drug abuse, taking proper hormones for sex-reassignment surgery. She now remains a mentor and speaker in Chicago actively involved in the LGBTQ community.
Costumes are by Oana Botez; scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado with lighting by Ben Stanton.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Charm is produced by MCC Theater www.MCCTheater.org and runs at the Lucille Lortel Theatre thru Oct. 15. The run time is 2 hours including one intermission.