REVIEW: Everybody needs “Charm”
“You are beautiful. You are gorgeous. But you are not charming.”
So says Mama Darleena Andrews to the assembled group of trans, queer, and troubled youth who have signed up for her charm class at an LGBTQ Center on the South Side of Chicago—the setting of MCC Theater’s production of Philip Dawkins’ play “Charm”, which opened September 18th at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
These kids, her “babies”, are not very kind to one another, reflecting a world that isn’t very kind to them. They throw shade and spill T with an all-too-easy pugilism, but Mama Darleena, a black transgender woman and retired nurse who has wielded etiquette as a tool for survival in her 67 years, is on a mission to teach them to love themselves and love each other, while coming to terms with some demons of her own in the process.
Based on the inspiring true story of Miss Gloria Allen, a black transgender woman who changed the lives of LGBTQ teens in Chicago with her etiquette class, “Charm” is a heartwarming comedy that tackles a dizzying array of contemporary issues around gender identity, sexual orientation, race, age, class, and privilege of all sorts in a crisp 120 minutes. With so much ground to cover, and a pitch perfect setup, the result is unsatisfying despite being funny and touching.
Among the many conflicts of the play is the idea of a bygone Emily Post-era gendered etiquette founded upon strict classifications and conformity clashing with the reality of a diverse, gender-fluid 2017 society. We all view the world through lenses of labels and taxonomies—some more aware or “woke” than others—as a way to make sense of existence and relate to each other. Stepping into Mama Darleena’s class upends assumptions and forces the characters, and the audience, to see one another as human beings, ultimately all sharing the same classification, despite our differences.
MCC’s production has generated buzz for its casting of trans and non-binary actors, and it is refreshing to see a story about trans people on stage. At times, the play does feel like one of those old comedies where a rag-tag group of teens overcome some hurdle or achieve some goal. You know what I’m talking about. The kind of movie you love, but in the light of 2017 feels cheesy, impractical, and borderline offensive in moments, though you still watch—and enjoy—it anyway. Such is the case with “Charm”.
For most of the play the characters remain one-dimensional archetypes, the writing uneven and dramatic tension unbalanced. A Tony Kushner-like dream sequence in Act II adds a degree of whimsy that elevates the otherwise conventional storytelling, but the ending feels abrupt, despite many long scenes leading up to it. I wonder if a stage play wasn’t the best medium for this story and these characters; with so many unique lives and experiences to profile, we are left with a survey of issues, instead of delving deeper. My interest was piqued throughout, but never quenched.
“Charm” is far from perfect, but it is important. 21 trans people have been killed in the United States so far in 2017, nearly matching 2016’s record with 3 months still left in the year. That statistic is an indictment of our society, and a wakeup call for us to do something about the violence that trans people face every day.
At a key moment in the play, Mama Darleena’s had enough with her students’ viciousness toward each other. She erupts, exclaiming that no one is taking care of them, so they have to take care of each other. “I see you”, she says. It is a simple statement, but to these kids, it is life-changing, and life-saving. The lesson is clear: we all have to do a better job of seeing each other and taking care of each other.
I believe in the power of theatre to alter minds, move hearts, and effect change. Seeing the world through another’s eyes, whether it’s Hamlet the Prince of Denmark or Mama Darleena a trans woman on the South Side of Chicago, changes you. For that reason alone, pay a visit to “Charm”. Like the early gay plays of the 1970s, it shows a community struggling to articulate its voice but with much to say that is worth hearing.
Bottom Line: Everybody needs charm, as Mama Darleena says. And everybody needs “Charm”—this heartwarming comedy about finding love and respect within the trans and queer community. The play isn’t perfect, but it is important.
MCC Theater at
The Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
New York, NY 10014
Running Time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Opening Night: September 18, 2017
Final Performance: October 15, 2017