I have a friend. We’ll call him Jay. Center of attention. Sharp intellect. Sharper dress shirts. He taught me the ways of shopping at Express. I taught him the beginner’s art of shade. But when it came to charm, Jay wielded it like a master chef, conducting his kitchen staff with a spatula as culinary art was created. It wasn’t surprising; Jay lived, breathed and God forbid died by Emily Post. Entertained to her every letter, bringing 50’s housewifery to a contemporary gay scene. I mocked him for it. Never thought I’d be eating my words – or rather, Philip Dawkins’ words - years later.
Countless Chicago playmakers came into my life and fundamentally asserted: “You must see Philip Dawkins’ work.” I was never in a city or a time-frame to do so, but finally, I saw it. Charm, his latest work produced by Northlight Theatre, played (and is playing at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre from October 14th to November 8th) to a full rehearsal audience and filled us with laughs, tears and, by all cadences queer, life.
Sparking Notes: A trans woman named Mama Darleena Andrews teaches a class on charm at a Chicago LGBT center, imparting her wisdom and rather gender-conservative manners upon homeless youth. She clashes with the center’s program supervisor on curricula and proper gender pronouns. They present as insignificant errors on the surface, but become magnified terrors as the issues each of her students face challenge Darleena’s Emily Post-World. These students struggle to survive as queer in a greater community that refuses to see them as greater than their parts or particular stations in life. How can Darleena’s old-school table manners benefit lives that barely have a place on the table?
What transpires in this play almost feels like a queer Stand and Deliver, and I mean no T or shade by the comparison. One by one, pockets of Darleena’s class open up to her and vice versa. You see these characters transform what was strictly Emily Post into Post-Emily as they pick up the sagging pants the world has given them and realize what beautiful gentlequeers they really are. They trade shade for shaking hands and accept souls when they go silent. In plot, these characters use what was binary to reach across binary boundaries between them and I can’t help but appreciate such delicious distortion existing in the genders between. Darleena and D could easily be cornered into boxed caricatures, caught in their opposite schools of thought, and yet both represent fair and flawed foils of each other. Their clashes are clawed, but conciliatory and their arguments over pronouns and procedures pickle the saving grace by which Charm seeks to invoke in its story. The play’s language is thoughtful, witty, and irrevocably human. Revelations hit like the strongest T(ea) you’ve ever tasted and when characters really turn on the charm – when they apply their lessons or get a taste of colorful medicine – the experience is heart-lifting.
In this run-down center classroom, acting is on full-force. Dexter Zollicoffer serves some major Xtravaganza realness as Mama Darleena, full of feminine mystique, but unafraid to butch the queen up in her battlegrounds. Elizabeth Ledo plays the authoritarian D with a delightful dorkiness; just when you think they’re too tough, they soften, but ready to re-barb the spikes when necessary. The ensemble certainly delivers the diverse pains and pleasures they experience in Mama Darleena’s classroom; even Logan (whom I still have my writing-doubts on determining his darker-side goals in taking such a charm class) is still a delight to watch. I’ll Paula Abdul this one: This cast is all good and when they go dark? You want to break the intimacy and cradle them in your arms, but thankfully, Mama Darleena provides love to all. For evidence, look no further than the revelations Brittney Love Smith, Namir Smallwood, and Monica Orozco bleed onstage as Victoria, Beta, and Ariella, respectively. They play their characters’ complicated truths with such honesty and vibrancy, and armed with Dawkins’ words, they sneak into the audience’s hearts and precision-explode them.
When a gift is offered, you say thank you; it is the generally accepted conduct. What Dawkins has given in Charm is a gift to humanity. As a playwright, it reminds me of why I write and what I strive for when I write: Absolute Humanity. No matter how brutal or idyllic our worlds become, we can rest on the promise of human respect. Any theatrical work that makes such a promise more tangible is necessary, especially in an age where trans lives and black lives die and go unnoticed. The work of these students can’t go unnoticed. Darleena’s work can’t go unnoticed. Charm should not go unnoticed.
So thank you, Philip Dawkins. And BJ Jones. And the rest of the cast and crew of this magnificent show. For giving me life.