by John Stoltenberg
Just opened at Mosaic Theater Company in a thrilling and vibrant production directed by Natsu Onoda Power is a play that puts on stage some of what National Geographic just called the gender revolution. But this is no anthropological field trip. Charm is so funny and poignant, and so pure of heart, that it elevates ordinary theatergoing to a revolutionary act of participation. Call it radical kinship: a shared opportunity to see differently lives that are different from our own.
The gifted playwright of Charm is Philip Dawkins, a thirty-something gay white cis male whose characters though fictionalized were inspired by real people whom he listened to and learned from. The path from those people to the play to this performance to our prehension is remarkable.
The main character of Charm is a 67-year-old African American trans woman named Mama Darlena Andrews. She volunteers at a social services center to uplift a group of homeless youth of color by teaching them social graces and grooming, all qualities she calls charm. Mama Darlena believes this tender loving training will affirm their worth and raise their aspirations. She beholds and esteems each one and calls them “my babies.” They are trans, genderqueer, gay, straight, gender nonconforming—a medley of individuals each socially stigmatized for their uniqueness. Mama Darlena teaches them to celebrate it instead—in themselves and in one other.
Dawkins spent some six months attending the real Charm School at the Center on Halsted in Chicago begun by the real Miss Gloria Allen. Dawkins would not take notes because he did not want the students ever to see him looking down and not paying them his full attention. So he would take it all in, then right afterward write it down—with Capote-like acuity and recall—and from those notes he created a play. He could not have sat in class as a detached observer. He had to have been empathetically present in order to apprehend the lives he witnessed. The characters in Charm could not otherwise have come to seem so real and true to life. And his empathetic apprehension is built into the play.
Dawkins has said of his intentions in writing Charm:
I hope it opens up a doorway to empathy where it may not have been expected. And I hope that people take that invitation and walk through that door.
That doorway began to open in what transpired between Dawkins’ witnessing and Dawkins’ writing. And it now swings wide open in the Lang Theatre on H Street performed by a cast so connected to their characters we cannot but be as well.
We first meet Mama Darlena (B’Ellana Duquesne), all warmth, propriety, and poise, when she walks on stage in her heels and addresses us as if we are her charges. Within moments she lands the first big laugh of the play:
I am so lookin’ forward to getting’ to know each and every one of you. But before we get started, there is one thing I need to make perfectly clear and that is, I have zero interest in lookin’ at your butt crack.
With such easygoing jokes and genuine gestures of inclusion, Mama Darlena disorients us out of whatever reserve we came in with and begins the play’s entry into our hearts.
We first meet Mama Darlena’s babies in a classroom of undifferentiated mayhem, a rowdy melee of jostling, jesting, and jeering. Miss Darlena’s entrance brings order. And the rest of the play brings each of her charm students into indelible focus one by one.
Jonelle (Justin Weaks) is gender nonconforming: male bodied but female attired. During the play a romance blooms that surprises Jonelle almost as much as us.
Victoria (Jade Jones*) is straight, cis female, and the mother of two children being cared for by their grandmother because Victoria can’t. Their babydaddy is Donnie (Louis E. Davis), cis male and presumptively straight but emotionally on the downlow with a female-presenting male inmate whom he fell for while in jail. During the play Mama Darlena reconciles Victoria and Donnie in a twist that surprises them almost as much as us.
Lady (Joe Brack) is gender uncertain and on the autism spectrum. She can’t find thrift shop clothes that become her. She doesn’t have a place even among the displaced. During the play Mama Darlena helps her be okay.
Beta (Clayton Pelham, Jr.) appears as a thuglike street tough. The way Mama Darlena draws out of him the painful secret he hides, and the anguished sorrow he suddenly howls, amounts to a gut-wrenching showstopper.
Arelia (Nyla Rose) is older than the others. Male to female trans, she has been in prostitution since she was 13. During the play she develops a crush on Mama Darlena and discloses in the play’s most heart-wrenching monologue such a depth of desperation and drive for survival that the show goes breathless once more.
Logan (Samy El-Noury) is a gay college kid who drops in out of curiosity only to learn something unforeseen about himself.
D (Kimberly Gilbert) is supervisor of the center and uses the pronouns they/their/them. A pivotal conflict scene between D and Mama Darlena explodes both their and our preconceptions .
There’s a lot of intolerance at the beginning among and between the characters in Charm. Prejudices and pejoratives, divisions and derision, fly every which way. Slowly but surely, though, Mama makes a place of peace for the distressed, and a home of kindness for the homeless. It is a process that catches us up in it. The characters’ movement to tolerance, trust, and connection models a movement that the entire play invites us to join.
The first part of the path is Dawkins’ act of empathy in scripting and individuating these characters’ lives.The second part of the path is the actors’ acts of empathy in embodying those lives. The third part of the path is the chance the Mosaic production occasions for random acts of empathy for those lives from anyone in the audience.
And it’s the third part that’s the charm.
*Beginning January 19, the role of Victoria will be played by Tamieka Chavis.