By Philip Dawkins
Directed by Will Davis
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“A compliment brings the charm to the surface. When we say that a certain color compliments your eyes, we mean it brings them out. You want to bring the other person out, make them feel special.” – Mama
At first glance, Philip Dawkins’s “Charm,” currently playing at MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is a heartfelt play about Mama Darleena Andrews (played with a spirited transcendence tempered with humility by Sandra Caldwell) a sixty-seven-year-old retired transwoman who decides to volunteer at a Chicago Center – a shelter and community safe space for the queer Community. Her specific goal is to sponsor a Charm School for the young trans clients. D (played with just the right amount of activist rigor by Kelli Simkins), the Center’s youth coordinator, thinks “the youth will get a lot out of just knowing [Mama Darlin]. They don’t have a lot of older trans role models.” But what kind of role model will Mama be?
Darleena firmly believes the dictates of Emily Post will give her “Babies” the tools they need to succeed in life. Charm is everything to Mama and, by persistently complimenting her charges, she firmly believes they will understand that they are special and better prepared to survive the negativity and hatred they experience – and threatens their lives – in their Chicago neighborhoods. Whether it be learning “proper” table manners or practicing applying make-up, her trans and heterosexual cisgender Babies and those still experimenting with their gender expression need to be charming as well as beautiful. Some members of the Center push back. Donnie (played with a bravado that masks brokenness by Michael David Baldwin), a “mostly” heterosexual, homeless, African American cisgender male responds, “I ain’t got no table! The hell I spose to do with table manners?”
Under Will Davis’s direction, Sandra Caldwell and the rest of the talented cast deliver strong performances and reflect the sincerity of the script and its redemptive message; however, what is missing in this production is a sense of vulnerability or a recognition of the importance of atonement. The character of Mama, despite her good intentions, seems not to honor the youth she claims to love. True, she holds them to a higher standard, but whose standard is that? She calls their peers “thugs” and “troupes of tramps.” D further challenges Mama, “You’re telling these black, Latinx, trans, homeless youths how to behave like white cotillion girls. And, frankly, it’s offensive.” The moral ambiguity in Mr. Dawkins’s play is appropriately palpable.
It isn’t until Darlenna becomes vulnerable with Beta (played with an exquisite range and depth of emotion by Marquise Vilson), a male-identified African American transman, that the audience sees authenticity and honesty and a path to catharsis. Beta takes a huge risk when he shares, “Stop callin’ me beautiful!!! I ain’t beautiful. I ain’t smart! I ain’t Nothin’! Not everybody gotta be special, right?! Not everybody got a family like you do. Not everybody got no bunch of friends like you. Not everybody got people. Some of us got no one, a’ight?!!!!! I got no one! I am no one!” Mama replies, “My family disowned me” and that confession establishes the possibility for forgiveness and true redemption.
Darleena’s Babies do not need her to be something she isn’t. They need her to take risks and be totally honest with them about her real struggles – in the past and in the present. What happens between Mama and Beta should happen throughout the play to achieve a consistent level of honest discourse and a greater opportunity to address the rich and enduring questions raised by the trans community. Salvation comes from the most unexpected places – even from troupes of tramps.