The real Miss Gloria Allen has called the play Charm a dead-on portrait of what her experience of running a charm class at Chicago’s LGBT Center on Halsted was really like.
“I thought it was actually me on the stage,” Allen told The Root earlier this year. “It was such a great thing because I had such amazing people in the class and I was happy that I’m able to give back… I’m so elated over the idea that I made… such a great accomplishment for the transgender and gay community.”
Allen, a black trans woman now in her early 70s, stopped presiding over the class for transgender and non-binary identifying youth at The Center in 2015, but her singular mission, guided by that doughty saint of manners and good behavior Emily Post, inspired Philip Dawkins’ excellent play, now an MCC Theater production at New York City’s Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Charm is nimbly directed by Will Davis, and nearly all the scenes take place in the classroom where Allen, here renamed Mama Darleena Andrews (Sandra Caldwell) teaches her etiquette class. The cast, which includes several LGBT actors, is led by trans actress Caldwell in her first major New York City role.
Thanks to the commitment and pumped-up energy of the actors, you are absolutely in that classroom with the company from Charm’s charged first moment.
The kids, whose identities—gender and otherwise—are intriguingly unfixed and undefined, are a cacophony from the first seconds. They come in as a group shouting, all except one, anyway, and the din doesn’t stop.
There is Ariela (Hailie Sahar), who may or may not be a prostitute, Victoria and Donnie (Lauren F. Walker and Michael David Baldwin), who seem like a typical, sparring heterosexual couple, Jonelle (JorJa Brown)—intelligent, gorgeous, legs for days, Beta (Marquise Vilson), at first sight a menacing, thuggish presence, Lady (Marky Irene Diven), who is nervous, possibly has ADHD, and—plain and uncomfortable-seeming—glowers in corners, and then Logan (Michael Lorz), who just seems to be an incredibly pretty, camp gay man who falls for Jonelle, and Jonelle for him.
Note the word “seems,” because nobody is as they might appear, and yet all have pretty tough veneers to penetrate before the truth is revealed—and that includes Mama herself.
Her chic ensemble and quietly spoken steeliness not only contrast with the roughness of the kids but also with D (Kelli Simpkins), who manages classes at the center and is a completely different kind of trans person from Mama.
Mama has been around every block imaginable, but D will not defer to her age and street-burnished wisdom.
D insists on the pronoun “they,” which Mama doesn’t get at all, and is incredulous that Mama would seek to enforce outdated, and—as she sees it—offensive and impractical notions of what it is right to say, do, and wear on these young people. It is a clash of ages, ideologies, and beliefs, and is a good corrective to anyone narrow-minded enough to assume that all trans people, all LGBT people, or that all of any within a minority group that tend to be homogenized in the mainstream psyche, think alike.
What begins as a clash of personalities develops into a full-scale crisis that threatens the future of the class. And all the time these difficult, loud, greedy, self-centered young people won’t become quiet or nice products of Miss Allen’s charm class. Not at first, anyway.
The cast are uniformly excellent. Caldwell is a beguiling mix of flinty and expansively warm, eventually telling the kids to shut up, be quiet, and apply themselves. Simpkins is earnest and principled, though we are not led by Dawkins to dislike, or mock, D because she is the opposite of Mama.
Despite all the insults flying around, the cast show the warmth and solidarity of the class, not least when the pulsingly lit stage erupts in a collective, exuberant dance. (Ben Stanton’s lighting design deserves special mention, as the classroom has faulty motion-sensitive lighting, a tease in the fabric of the story itself.)
Woven into the characters and plot are themes of race (the cast are predominantly people of color), identity, sexuality, gang violence, isolation, and marginalization. None of these are cut-and-pasted on to the characters as dreary sociology or polemicizing. Diven’s performance as Lady is particularly complex.
Mama sometimes gets the messages on what to say and what to call something way wrong. Her thinking is antiquated, and while some aspects of the class seem to the young people’s benefit, one wonders what use knowing the correct way to lead a dance actually is. There are uses for Emily Post, but surely what Mama seeks to remedy cannot alleviate the poverty, stigma, and discrimination endured by the young people here.
The biggest benefit of Miss Allen’s class is the most basic: that teaching good manners and respect for others means we treat others, and ourselves, better. What Mama learns is that her own definition of manners and etiquette also needs to evolve. Her own notions of gender and identity could themselves use a little airing.
The story, a spokesperson for the show told The Daily Beast, “is inspired by Miss Gloria Allen’s volunteer work at the Center on Halsted, but in no way is it a plot-point-for-plot-point retelling of it. And while much of it is true, it is a dramatization, some of the characters are composites of different real-life people, and Gloria Allen was certainly never asked to stop doing her Charm class in any cloud of controversy.”
A spokesperson couldn’t confirm whether another storyline—about the lead character’s health—was rooted in reality, but this aspect of the play is perhaps its weakest. A sudden illness suffered by Mama takes us to a hospital bed, and the prospect of loose ends being hastily tied. Charm segues quickly from an intriguing set of relatable and intractable complexities to, quite literally, a bed of roses.
The earlier, loud, tougher part of Charm is a more challenging, fulfilling slice of drama. But perhaps given the threats of political and personal harm facing transgender people now—whether in the military and out on all-too-harsh streets—a heartwarming, happy ending on stage is no bad thing.
Charm is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., New York City, through Oct. 8. Book tickets here.