However predictable their arcs, these characters are far more fascinating than the usual lifeboat crew, and Mr. Dawkins, a Chicago playwright making his New York debut, deserves credit for ushering them to the stage. Whenever “Charm” focuses on their lives outside of class it maintains at least a documentary interest. But within the class, the noisy action — all shade and byplay — is too often superficial.
The potential for real conflict is largely left unexplored. (Perhaps that’s inevitable in a play inspired by and dedicated to a real person, a woman named Gloria Allen who taught a similar class at Chicago’s Center on Halsted.) Mama is not, for instance, politically correct. A practical accommodationist, she advises conformity in manner and dress as a way of getting ahead. “Have pity on the straight people,” she tells the class. “They get confused so easily.”
Such admonitions put her in conflict with contemporary identity politics, and thus with the ideals of the institution where she volunteers. Mr. Dawkins chooses to play that conflict out between Mama and the center’s youth programs administrator, a nonbinary straw person so brittle as to bridle at Mama’s reference to her cohort of “old trannies.” (“That’s not a word that we use,” the administrator, played by Kelli Simpkins, splutters.) How much more compelling it would have been if the issue were instead contended between Mama and her students, who use whatever words are needed.
Lacking scenes that truly test her philosophy, Mama is reduced to a collection of uplifting attitudes and sassy ripostes. Sandra Caldwell, who came out as transgender while auditioning for the role, gets the rhythms right but has little else to play; Mr. Dawkins lets all of the character’s attempted lessons dribble away before they lead to believable change or even practical information. We never learn much about the forks.
Having read and liked two of Mr. Dawkins’s earlier plays — “The Homosexuals” and “Le Switch” — I was surprised by this lack of dramatic follow-through, and by the tendency to signpost themes as if doubting the audience’s ability to discern them without help. The MCC Theater production, directed by Will Davis, is similarly earnest and awkward. Still, when Mama’s focus narrows to individuals instead of the group, in one-on-one scenes with Beta (Marquise Vilson) and Ariela (Hailie Sahar), authentically moving moments emerge.
That authenticity is in part the result of MCC’s admirable effort to cast the play with transgender people and others whose life experience bears on their characters. This means that some of the actors are inexperienced, or even making professional stage debuts. It shows.
But the usual markers of success may not apply to “Charm.” Like gay plays starting in the 1970s, and black plays and Jewish plays and others before them, this is first-wave theater about a newly empowered cultural identity. Success in that context may mean simply getting a place at the table. In which case — sorry, Ms. Post — forks, and critics, are irrelevant.
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