September 30, 2017

"Charm" Celebrates Gender Fluidity

It's hard not to be charmed by Charm, the new play about a 67-year-old transgender woman who offers etiquette lessons to underprivileged and gender-fluid youths. For everyone associated with this MCC Theater production—playwright Philip Dawkins, director Will Davis and the gender-diverse cast led by Sandra Caldwell—is earnestly committed to doing and saying the right thing. The result is sentimental—but inspirational too.

The play itself, or at least its first act, was inspired by the experiences of Miss Gloria Allen, a now 73-year-old transgender woman who has lived her true identity since she was 19, mentored homeless youths at Chicago's LGBTQ center and been described as a blend of RuPaul and Auntie Mame (click here to read more about her and the show's genesis).

But, as though he were one of her students, Dawkins takes a decorous approach to Allen's story that not only beatifies his subject but makes her fictional stand-in Mama Darleena Andrews less colorful than the real woman seems to be.

And while the students in the play's class are a span-the-gamut mix of rainbow ethnicities, identities ranging from the gender proud to the gender confused and social backgrounds that include a rich kid seeking a safe place to figure out who he is and a homeless teen who supports herself by working the streets as a prostitute, there's a polite quality to all of them too.

They're all looking for love and affirmation and Dawkins gives each of them the chance to act out a bit. But they too easily buy into Mama Darleena's anachronistic ideas about the right way to eat, sit and conform to conventional rules about the way men and women (transgender or cisgender) should behave.

In fact, the play's best conflict is between Mama and D, the gender-non-conforming director of the center who has a more contemporary view on what it means to be a trans person. 

That should be drama enough but in the second act, Dawkins mixes in jealousies and rivalries that eventually threaten the future of the etiquette program and Mama Dareleena's very life. Then he quickly whirls through resolutions to these problems as though they were plot points on a TV procedural.

Yet, it's still great to see a story about transgender people that isn't unrelentingly depressing or sad but is instead upbeat and celebratory. That's due, in part to the substantial transgender presence on the creative team, starting with Davis, the artistic director of Chicago's American Theatre Company and the first acknowledged transgender person to lead a mainstream theatre company in this country (click here to read more about him).

Davis actively recruited transgender actors to be a part of his cast. Their abilities vary but, under Davis' steady hand, they all bring authenticity and obvious delight to the roles they play. And the production really lucked out with Caldwell, a longtime actress who was moved to come out as transgender by the opportunity to be in this play (click here to read an interview with her).

Caldwell is warm and funny as she delivers the snappy lines Dawkins has written for Mama Darleena but she also imbues the role with a gravitas hewn from her own experiencces of what it has been like to live as a trans person in this society. 

Charm, which is running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Oct. 15, isn't a great play but, particularly in these tolerance-testing times, it's one worth seeing and cheering on.

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