‘Charm’ at MCC Theater. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Lindsay B Davis
Charm, MCC’s latest Off-Broadway offering at Lucille Lortel theater, wants your attention. Inspired by real life, trailblazing transgender activist Miss Gloria Allen, playwright Philip Dawkins reimagines her as Mama Darleena Andrews (an impassioned Sandra Calwell), dramatizing Allen’s transformative work with homeless, transgender youth in Chicago’s Halstead Community Center. The result is an adrenaline rushing, sharp-tongued play that makes up for in authenticity and heart what it at times lacks in subtlety.
Perhaps because in the world of Charm there is no time to be subtle. When Mama Darleena opens up Charm School at The Center the stakes are exceedingly high for everyone. Her “Babies,” as they are affectionately called, range in age from 18 to 33 and are a mix of trans, gay and cisgender straight youth of varying ethnicities and backgrounds. Emily Post’s Etiquette guide may be the primary resource for Mama D, but the kids are not looking for something so antiquated. It’s 2014 in the world of this play and “rain in Spain stays mainly in the plane” lessons a la My Fair Lady are irrelevant to a group from the street whose number one priority is survival. What will get their attention, initially? Free pizza. What will keep them coming back? This is the story you will see unfold and it is quite a ride.
The kids arrive rowdy and when Donnie (an eager Michael David Baldwin) declares, “No joke, Mama D. It’s shade city around this bitch” all Mama can answer is, “That does not sound charming to me.” From this point on it’s game on, and Mama D cuts through fork and knife placement lessons with affirmations and empowerment talk while trying to gain trust and affection from a community by whose behavior she is ultimately “disgusted.” Mama D accomplishes her agenda to varying degrees over the course of two acts, building community and eventually, something resembling a diverse, cohesive family unit of which she is the matriarch.
Sandra Calwell, who like Allen is a woman of color, shared publicly for the first time in an August New York Times article that she, too, identifies as transgender. As the most experienced actor on the stage and centerpiece of this production, she drives the action with infusions of wit, sass and yes, charm, not to mention maternal energy that her Babies soak up like a sponge does spilled milk.
“Now, ladies, sit up straight, tits on the table, legs crossed at the ankle. Victoria, dear, knees together and tilted to the side, please. You’re giving the whole room a free matinee.” — Mama D
Even when the action and speech become slightly repetitive and plot points turn predictable (enter a mysterious, potentially sidelining illness to raise the stakes even higher), you forgive it because Calwell is self-declared “living history” who deserves to be seen, heard and loved. Such truthful work and undeniable charisma are matched by transgender actresses Hailie Shafar as Ariela and JoJo Brown as Jonelle, plus Michael Lorz, who plays the gay, affluent Logan with riveting comic excellence. When Calwell is not equally matched by her troupe, she is carrying other actors’ performances (not unlike Mama D carries her Babies), so much so that the ones newer to stage work of this magnitude still come across as convincing.
As if she does not have enough obstacles, Mama Darleena runs up against the Center’s administrator known only as D (an efficient Kelli Simpkins of The Laramie Project) who refuses gender binaries, prefers to be called by the pronoun “they,” and sees Mama D’s work as problematic, particularly after one of the Babies goes to the press with a questionable portrayal of Charm School. If all of this sounds like a lot to get your head around, rest assured the action moves towards a resolution with speed and surprises, including a dance-off where vogueing meets twerking to very positive effect.
Will Davis’s direction pulls it all together by finding high points of dynamic tension balanced by powerful moments of vulnerability. Also worth noting is Oana Botez’s costume design, which, to use a Mama Darleena favorite, is simply “fabulous.” There are so many takeaways to be gleaned by Charm, but the one which stayed with me longest is about beauty. Mama D, thank you for the lesson that you can teach someone to see their own and in doing so, transform a person’s entire world.
MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through October 15
Lindsay B Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.