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© Joan Marcus
© Joan Marcus

Theater: Teaching Manners the Trans Way in 'Charm'

Picture of Bill Stevenson
Updated: 26 September 2017

It’s fitting that a play that features trans characters and trans actors, and was directed by a trans man, has opened on Christopher Street in Manhattan’s historically gay West Village.

Many Americans feel threatened by trans prople. Even liberal-minded New Yorkers probably don’t know much about the trans experience. Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins’ Charm, which the MCC Theater company is performing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, sheds light on the subject without getting preachy. Best of all, Dawkins includes plenty of humor to counterbalance the characters’ difficult reality.

Making a difference

The play takes place at the LGBTQ center in a rough area of Chicago’s South Side. It touches on gangs, prostitution, HIV, homelessness, kids kicked out by their parents, and trannie-bashing. Dawkins doesn’t shy away from the tough circumstances of the young people at the center. But his main character is a confident, strong, proud 67-year-old black trans woman volunteer who makes a difference with her grace, wit, and flair.

Kelli Simpkins and Sandra Caldwell in ‘Charm’ | © Joan Marcus

Mama Darleena Andrews (Sandra Caldwell), affectionately known as Mama Darlin, is a wonderful character. She isn’t entirely fictional, however. She was inspired by Miss Gloria Allen, who had the unlikely idea of teaching an etiquette class at the center. Of course, an inner-city LGBTQ center was an unlikely venue for quoting Emily Post, the doyenne of etiquette, and teaching unruly kids table manners. But as Mama puts it, “Everybody needs some charm.”

Role model

The class is meant to be a safe space for young trans people, but gays and straight allies are welcome. Darleena, transgender for 48 years, says, “I’ve been through it all, good and bad.” Despite the ups and downs she’s experienced, she’s sharply dressed, poised, and self-possessed. She becomes a role model, mentor, and mother figure for the trans and gay kids who are trying to figure out who they are and how they’re going to survive.

Sandra Caldwell and Hailie Sahar in ‘Charm’ | © Joan Marcus

In the early scenes, the students are, as Mama notes, far from charming. They yell, talk to themselves, interrupt Mama, fight, and disrespect each other. Some just came there in hope of getting free food. Emily Post would have lasted about 30 seconds.

Mama sticks it out, but even she is disappointed by the way the way the kids behave. Recalling the chaotic scene in the center café, she says, “It got to be such a disgustin’, loud, irreverent circus, that my girlfriends wanted to leave.” Fortunately, some of Mama’s lessons in manners eventually rub off on her students.

Sensational turn

Charm isn’t a polished or tidy play. Dawkins can get overly sentimental, and Mama sometimes seems a bit too saintly. But Caldwell, herself a trans woman, is sensational. She expertly dishes out Mama’s quips, including my favorite: the Adam’s apple is “like a nasty speed bump on the fast lane to glamour.” Mama also has a vulnerable side, and Caldwell subtly lets us know that Darleena is fragile underneath her put-together exterior.

Kelli Simpkins, Haili Sahar, Marquise Vilson, Jojo Brown, Sandra Caldwell, Lauren F. Walker, Marky Irene Diven, and Michael David Baldwin in ‘Charm’ | © Joan Marcus

Among the other actors, some are trans and some have more theater credits than others. Will Davis directs them all with a sure hand. The standouts include Hailie Sahar as Ariela, who idolizes Mama but ends up betraying her, and Michael Lorz (pictured far left in top picture), who is endearingly sweet as Logan, a fish-out-of-water preppy white gay boy.

And Kelli Simpkins is terrific as D, the center’s head of youth programs, who doesn’t always see eye to eye with Darleena. Among other things, D and Darleena don’t even agree on whether gender is fixed or fluid.

Besides being an eye-opening and entertaining fictionalized portrait of Miss Gloria Allen, Charm reveals that there are many variations of gender identity. In Mama’s eyes, though, all her babies are beautiful.

Charm continues through October 15 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, New York, NY 10014. Get tickets here or at Ovationtix (212) 352-3101.