Charm doesn’t start with a bang, exactly, but it does begin with a command. The elegant, no-nonsense Mama Darleena, played like the star she is by Dexter Zollicoffer, enters and announces that no funny business is going to be tolerated. We are to be polite and pay attention. This is good, because Charm is worth our attention.
Written by Philip Dawkins and based on the real-life work of Miss Gloria Allen, Charm follows Mama Darleena’s foundation of a charm school for LGBTQ youths at a Chicago community center. It takes the “inspirational teacher” genre and infuses it with real pain, soul and laughter, depicting an LGBTQ community beset by outside forces but also by internal dissension, an argument between the future and the past.
But it’s also a play about people. Mama Darleena’s class includes characters like Jonelle (Armand Fields), a proud transgender teen; Victoria and Donnie (BrittneyLove Smith and Julian Parker), a cisgender African-American couple; and Beta (Namir Smallwood), a taciturn, wound-up kid with gang ties. Yet none of the characters feel like they are just checking off boxes. They are 3-D, surround sound, IMAX HD humans. None more so than Mama Darleena, who has fought all her life to be treated like a lady and so can’t understand when her administrator D (Elizabeth Ledo) chastises her for encouraging kids to choose a gender.
Northlight artistic director BJ Jones does fantastic work here, unleashing moments of chaos, crisp wit and subtle heartbreak with equal aplomb. He brings Dawkins's brilliant script to Technicolor life, and delivers a story that not only demands our attention but endlessly rewards it.
Northlight Theatre at the Steppenwolf Garage. By Philip Dawkins. Directed by BJ Jones. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.