BWW Review: Philip Dawkins' Uplifting CHARM Inspired By Transgender Teacher Miss Gloria Allen
The beloved and classic premise of an idealistic teacher determined to reach out and help a classroom full of troubled and disrespectful students ("Up The Down Staircase," "To Sir, With Love") gets a fresh and surprising variation in Philip Dawkins' terrific new comedy/drama, Charm.
The play is inspired by the experiences of Miss Gloria Allen, a transgender African-American woman who volunteered for many years teaching charm at Chicago's Center On Halsted, described on it's website as "The Midwest's most comprehensive community center dedicated to advancing community and securing the health and well-being of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) people of Chicagoland."
Dawkins' protagonist, 67-year-old Mama Darleena Andrews (better known as Mama Darlin) is played with engaging poise, humor and confidence by Sandra Caldwell. The audience gets a taste of her streetwise elegance in an opening monologue where she admonishes any gentlemen who may be wearing their trousers a bit more casually than what she would consider socially acceptable. ("There is one thing I need to make perfectly clear and that is, I have zero interest in lookin' at your butt crack.")
Like the makeup of her first group of students, the makeup of the cast includes both transgender and cisgender members.
The flashy Ariela (Hailie Sahar) shows an immediate interest in Mama's lessons, though some may be disheartened to learn why. Homeless couple Victoria (Lauren F. Walker) and Donnie (Michael David Baldwin) bicker at each other constantly, hiding their true affection. Beta (Marquise Vilson) puts up a menacing exterior to hide some serious vulnerability.
Some don't respond well to the identity fluidity in the budding relationship between Jonelle (Jojo Brown) and Logan (Michael Lorz) and few know what to make of the erratic behavior of Lady (Marky Irene Diven).
"You are beautiful," the teacher assures her students. "Everything about you is gorgeous. But you are not charming."
Her curriculum is derived from Emily Post's volumes on proper etiquette.
As is typical for such stories, the first class is a disaster. But as the students learn to trust the teacher and see her as a strong, determined and caring woman who has not only survived worse indignities than they have, but who has blossomed into a role model of what they can become, they grow to admire her.
Issues arise when Mama Darlin gets involved with one student's outside life and declines to allow another student entry into her outside life, but the most intriguing issue the play presents is introduced by the center's non-binary administrator, D (Kelli Simpkins), who objects to how Mama Darlin's lessons encourage gender roles and strict gender identity, clashing with the center's policy of inclusiveness.
While each character represents a certain type, Dawkins' character-specific language and Will Davis' sensitive direction keep them from appearing as clichés, making Charm a touching and ultimately uplifting experience.