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Theater review by Diane Snyder
She lived as a black transgender woman well before the term LGBTQ came to define a community. Now, in Philip Dawkins’s bold and tender Charm, 67-year-old Mama Darleena Andrews (Sandra Caldwell) teaches a class on etiquette to a rowdy new generation of trans youths in Chicago. Increased visibility hasn’t necessarily made life easier for her poor, mostly black and Latino students. But Mama comes to serve as a role model and life coach to a group that includes Jonelle (Jojo Brown), Lady (Marky Irene Diven), Ariela (Hailie Sahar) and Beta (Marquise Vilson).
Charm is inspired by the real-life work of Miss Gloria Allen, but it is richer and more complex than mere homage. Dawkins and director Will Davis juggle a colorful array of characters with skill, and the actors, several of whom are transgender, form a wonderfully harmonious ensemble, especially when creating cacophony. Caldwell offers an authentic portrait of a woman who hides as much as she reveals, and whose Emily Post lessons in gender behavior at times conflict with the mission of the center that hosts her classes. Although the play’s ending is somewhat pat, the last scene of its first act—a tense, revelatory encounter between Mama and Beta—packs a real wallop. No one coasts on charm here; the talent is real.
Lucille Lortel Theatre (Off Broadway). By Philip Dawkins. Directed by Will Davis. With Sandra Caldwell. Running time: 2hrs 5mins. One intermission. Through Oct 8.