By Patrick Hurley
Set in an LGBTQ center in Chicago, Charm, playing now at the Celebration theatre, takes on the hot-button issues of gender identity, sexuality, and race, and does so with a sometimes light and highly comedic touch. Darleena Andrews (Lana Houston) arrives at the Center to volunteer her time to teach a trans-youth charm class. Darleena, who goes by Mama, is welcomed to the Center by D (Rebekah Walendzak), a person who doesn’t claim a gender, a concept very foreign to the sixty-something Mama, who has very old-fashioned ideals about what it means to identify as male or female. This sets up a clash that will undoubtedly occur between the two.
The charm class that Mama teaches, which takes up the bulk of the play, introduces us to Ariela (Esteban Andres Cruz), a thirty-three year old trans Latina who has to turn tricks to survive on the street. Jonelle (Armand Fields) A college student, whose gender identity is still in flux. Victoria (Shoniqua Shandai), a young African-American mother and her boyfriend Donnie (Tre Hall) both of whom are not LGBTQ identified, and are accused of being at the Center merely for the free food. Then there’s Beta (Ahsley Romans), a quiet, young African-American gang member, and Lady (Chris Aguila) an overly nervous trans girl. Lastly, there’s Logan (Alexander Hogy) a young gay man who starts a romantic relationship with Jonelle.
The first class introduces these six students, most of whom live on the tough streets of Chicago’s Southside, and shows that Mama definitely has her work cut out for her. In what feels a bit like an R rated Lifetime movie, we watch an older mentor try to reach out and change the lives of a disinterested and troubled youth. Mama’s attempts to demonstrate proper introductions and proper fork usage is countered with foul language, aggressive behavior, and complete lack of respect. Mama’s stories of her fabulous life are meant to encourage these young adults, she wants to show herself as a mentor and beacon of hope, but this is overshadowed by the reality of gang violence, physical abuse, and rejection from society. As the weeks go by, however, Mama’s defiant refusal to back down, and her preaching of old-school values and manners wins some of the students over and she becomes someone they can go to in crisis. It also catches the attention of D who accuses Mama of trying to delineate gender through the social norms that don’t apply to the trans youth in her class.
Written by Philip Dawkins, this play doesn’t tread any new ground for the trans community. The reception of socially relevant plays is crucial to the timing of its content, and most of what happens in this play is a conversation that started years ago. There are also a few too many clichés occurring. Not just in the dialogue, but also in the representation of the characters. The idea of trans women as prostitutes, or drug addicts doesn’t require anyone to see a new side of a world that is foreign to them, it confirms what they already may have thought. Playing a trans character as a drag queen, which, for all her fabulousness, Lana Houston as Mama, seems to be doing, brings a slightly caricatured and dated feel to this very contemporary issue. Perhaps Mama being stuck so far in the ideals of the past makes the choice of camping her up an appropriate one, but one can’t help but wish that this representation could have been something less on-the-nose.
Director Michael Matthews goes big. This play is bright, loud, and rambunctious. Sometimes the energy coming off the stage seems powerful enough to rip right through the walls of the small theater. Moments of intimacy are really heightened because of this, but there are far too few of them. This high energy and fast-pace helps the two and half hour running time, and keeps the audience perpetually engaged.
The high energy can also be attributed to the cast, all of whom, at some point, contribute something passionately to the play. Chris Aguila as the very awkward and nervous Lady is the standout of the night. Infused with humanity and honesty, Lady is a true original. Mr. Aguila gives Lady a sweetness and vulnerability that are so effusive that by the time Lady’s desperate monologue about her body happens, it is absolutely heartbreaking. As Beta, Ashley Romans gives an impressive performance. She is able to pull off a perfect stock character by giving us a young man we easily recognize, and then she wins us over by surprisingly humanizing Beta with deep and sincere honesty. Esteban Andres Cruz is fantastic as Ariela. Even though it’s a bit campy, it is one of those beautifully composed performances where the talent of the actor always brings us back to the real character beneath, and it’s a true joy to watch an actor sink his teeth into a role.
This production has its issues, as does the play itself. There are a few too many easy outs, there are too many embraced clichés, and for tackling a big contemporary issue, it falls too easily into sitcom territory. Mama is a sort of modern day trans Pollyanna whose change is brought about by the changes she affects in others, and the reality of this world is completely lost in the need for positivity and keeping it lighthearted. But maybe that’s progress, maybe the need for a play in which transgendered individuals can exist in a less tragic world is a great thing. Even though the world of this play is still hostile and dangerous for these characters, we get a glimpse of a happier time on the horizon. Maybe Mama’s dream of a world where everyone is charming to everyone else isn’t a bad thing at all. And for all it’s limitations, like Mama herself, Charm wins us over.
By Philip Dawkins
Directed by Michael Matthews
Sept. 9-October 23
6760 Lexington Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038