Sandra Caldwell and Hailie Sahar in Philip Dawkins’ “Charm,” directed by Will Davis, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through October 8. | JOAN MARCUS
MCC Theater has long been a champion when it comes to showcasing social, ethnic, and sexual diversity onstage. With its latest offering, “Charm,” based on a true story about a 67-year-old black transgender teacher named Miss Gloria Allen, it’s kicking it up a notch. The lead is played with measured sensitivity by Sandra Caldwell, who identifies as transgender, as do many of the supporting cast members and the director, Will Davis.
By casting actors whose own remarkable backgrounds and identities match those of the characters, MCC can’t help but supercharge the performance.
The chaotic drama, by Philip Dawkins, is an updated, thoughtful riff on “To Sir, With Love.” Instead of a school in London in the 1960s, the action takes place in the LGBTQ community center in Chicago in 2014. Instead of a black man the kids come to call “Sir,” the instructor is a black transgender woman they call “Mama” (she goes by Mama Darleena Andrews). This is not a paid position; she’s volunteering out of a sense of duty to her community.
Transgender teacher makes etiquette matter for troubled, uncouth youths
The clamorous band of disadvantaged youths, who run the gamut of race and gender expression, is in dire need of attention, and there’s not a tired stereotype in the bunch. The eldest is Ariela (Hailie Sahar), a trans woman and savvy hooker who tries to strike a friendship with Mama outside the classroom and wreaks havoc when she’s rebuffed. Donnie (Michael David Baldwin) is a sluggard recently out of prison who verbally abuses his insecure baby mama Victoria (Lauren F. Walker) in front of others. The tough, brooding Beta (Marquise Vilson) is in a violent queer gang and hides a shameful secret.
[Editor's note: Since this review was originally posted, the play's run has been extended through October 15.]
Then there’s the jittery, mumbling Lady (Marky Irene Diven, in a gloriously creepy turn), labeled “retarded” by the others though probably autistic, who is caught between male and female, searching for a true identity. Jonelle (Jojo Brown), who wears feathered black angel wings, has a crush on prettyboy Logan (Michael Lorz), a witty, wispy young man who identifies as gay.
Jojo Brown and Michael Lorz. | JOAN MARCUS
Can Mama tame these monsters by teaching them some good old-fashioned manners? With dignity and civility, she slowly breaks through to them, wielding her fat book by Emily Post like a Bible.
Not that the art of polite introductions and knowing how to set a proper table are all Mama is teaching these misfits. She shows them how to respect others and themselves to help them tackle the challenges brought on by their poverty and identity. Over time, she instills the exquisite power of charm.
Victoria is quick to absorb the lessons. When Donnie insults Logan, she says: “It don’t matter what he got in his pants, it matter what he got in his heart, right Mama?”
What Mama cannot teach, because she simply lacks a solid grasp, are the shades of gray between the personal pronouns. She is old school, where binary thinking regarding gender is all she knows. She was biologically a male, then she transitioned, surgeries and all, to a female. When she tries to divide the class into ladies and gentlemen to reinforce traditional gender roles, mayhem ensues.
The tension is amped up further by the clash between Mama and the youth program director, who calls themself “D” (played with snappy officiousness by Kelli Simpkins). D is outraged that Mama is using an outmoded code of conduct that doesn’t allow for nuance.
Unbelievably, Mama is not familiar with using the pronoun “they” to describe a person who identifies as non-binary. Victoria has never heard the term “cis” before.
“It means your gender matches your birth certificate,” Jonelle snips, with an air of disdain.
There are a few rough patches in this earnest production. The action is raw, sometimes excessively so. Occasionally, Davis allows the cast a bit too much free rein, and the blocking could be tighter. The climactic scene, a fantasia where Mama meets Emily Post, feels more clunky than compelling.
Although the performances are uneven, what some may lack in precision they make up for in spirit. Perhaps the most poignant moment the night I attended was during the curtain call, when the cast members beamed with pride, some in tears, grateful to finally be sharing their truths.
CHARM | MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., btwn. Bleecker & Hudson Sts. | Through Oct. 15: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49-$99 at mcctheater.org | Two hrs., with one intermission