Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Charm is taken from the real-life story of Gloria Allen, a transgender woman who was a 65-year-old retired nurse in 2011 and saw the need for, developed, and taught a "Charm School" for transgender youth at Center on Halsted, a community hub of GLBT resources and activism in Chicago. Since then, Ms. Allen has become a highly regarded leader in Chicago's transgender community.
Dawkins structures his play along familiar lines: an idealistic teacher with a group of unruly and unresponsive students summons the inner reserve to gain their trust and draw out their better selves. The charm school students arrive at the community center (clearly modeled on Center at Hasted) with street-smarts, loud voices, abrasive language, ill-fitting clothing, and little self-esteem. They are the polar opposite of charming. The center's director, D (with a name selected to deflect gender designation, D requests to be referred to by the pronoun "they") warns Mama that some of the youth will show up just for the free food, but Mama is confident she will win them over. She does so by speaking plainly, on their terms, but with wit, such as telling the class "You will discover a whole new you, instead of a 'ho' you knew."
It turns out that half of the six class members are not transgender, but Mama says all are welcome. A homeless straight coupleghetto-bred Donnie and Victoria, the mother of Donnie's babyjust need a place to go and score pizza. Beta is secretive about his sexuality and stays shrouded in a hooded sweatshirt. The three class members who are transgender each have very different circumstances. Ariela, 33 years old, seems out of place among her much younger classmates, her barbed cynicism the result of years out in the world. Jonelle is a bright young student who finished high school early and is now taking college classes. Lady's barely coherent babbling reveals the pain and chaos of her transitioning identity. She is also the only white class member.
Predictably, the first class session is a disaster, but we are primed to expect stories of inspirational teachers to start out that way. The next week they are joined by Logan, a gay college student who says he is there as a research project. One by one, Mama breaks through their resistance and makes a case for the role of "charm" as a defense against the hostility they encounter in life. As the unique challenges faced by each member of the class are revealed, some things are not being as they first seem.
Dawkins has a compelling topic, one increasingly receiving attention in media and public life. He has created interesting and believable characters and placed them in a true-to life scenario, well-stocked with both drama and humor. Setting up the class members' fears and hopes in the first act builds a desire to learn how their lives will unfold. In the second act, her dedication to her students puts Mama to an extreme test, and the group is at risk of unraveling.
The end, though, disappoints, as the student's troubled hearts are healed by means of a crisis that plays as a cliché. This shortchanges the ongoing reality of their complex interior lives and a perilous external environment. Sure, we hope for them to each find their way forward, but on a path that feels genuine, not a playwright's tidy conclusion. The play leaves us on an upbeat note, a tribute to the brave and generous work done by Mama Darleenaand, of course, the very real Gloria Allen. Yet, we know there is much work yet to be done, and many challenges ahead for each student.
As directed by Addie Gorlin, Charm is engaging at all times and manages to unspool the tales of the students without losing the central thrust of the play. She allows the humor imbedded in the characters to surface naturally, without diluting the serous business at hand. Gorlin also manages to create moments of great tenderness, such as a scene in which the male class members learn about make-up by applying it on the females.
Mama Darleena is at the center of Charm, and she is played with a winning balance of warmth and strength by Julienne "Miz June" Brown. Brown imbues Mama with the grace and dignity of a person steeped in the virtues of charm and etiquette, but when pushed (which is often) she summons the grit that has brought her through great upheavals in her own life. Unfortunately, it was at times difficult to hear Ms. Brown toward the back of the house where I was sitting, so that some of Mama's wisdom was lost to our ears.
In mounting Charm, Mixed Blood made a commitment to cast the play's transgender characters with transgender actors, and the authenticity of the cast is evident. Meighan Gerachis is perfect as D, displaying the harried life of a non-profit administrator, juggling budgets, sign-in numbers, program goals and board members. Jay Own Eisenberg is truly amazing as Lady, capturing the anxiety of not knowing where she fits in. Rehema Mertinez brings out resentment and hints of danger in her portrayal of Ariela. As Jonelle, Alyssandra Taylor is the most "together" of the students, determined to make her life amount to something.
The remaining cast members play their parts convincingly, with Jay Simmons a lost lamb squirming to avoid the cleaver as Beta, Nathan Barlow bringing decorum to the group as he explores new facets of his life as Logan, and Ryan Colbert, fully immersed in Donnie's street swagger (is this the same actor who was so genteel as Pip in Great Expectations at Park Square just a few months ago?).
Joseph Stanley's setting is the epitome of a run-down basement meeting room, a dirty and depressing space allocated for activities that are judged to be the bottom of the barrel. Trevor Bowen's costumes and Paul Bigot's wigs create distinctive personas for each of Charm's characters.
Charm provides a window into the difficulties faced by transgender youth in particular, and for all gay youth, and makes a winning case for the strength and confidence that can be amassed by learning to be charming in the truest sense. The play has some structural weakness, especially in its conclusion, but the points it makes and the characters it reveals to us make it well worth a visit.
Charm continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through May 8, 2016. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $20 for reserved tickets; Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door prior to performances. For advance tickets call 612-338-6331 or go to www.mixedblood.com.
Writer: Philip Dawkins; Directed by: Addie Gorlin; Choreographer: Brian Bose; Set Design and Technical Director: Jose Stanley; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Danika Ragnhild; Properties Designer: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Megan West.
Cast: Nathan Barlow (Logan), Julienne "Mizz June" Brown (Mama Darleena Andrews), Ryan Colbert (Donnie), Jay Own Eisenberg (Lady), Meighan Gerachis (D), Rehema Mertinez (Ariela), Jay Simmons (Beta), Alyssandra Taylor (Jonelle), Jennifer Waweru (Victoria).
Reviewed by Arty Dorman