Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Charm - Mixed Blood Theatre

Charm, showing at Mixed Blood Theater through May 8, could not be more timely.

At a time of so much confusion, misinformation (and frankly, hate) around transgender people, it's refreshing and eye-opening to see the story of so many non-gender-conforming people.

Please note: I will attempt to use appropriate terminology and respectful language in this post, and apologize in advance if I say something I shouldn't. As Miss Darleena says in the show, "Have pity on the straight people, baby, they get confused."

The play is set in a dingy classroom in a LGBTQI community center in Chicago, where a volunteer is starting a class in - what else? - Charm. Mama Darleena, played by Julienne "Mizz June" Brown, is an African American trans woman in her 60s. A retired nurse, she wants to help her students, mostly homeless trans youth, to transcend their situations. Having come of age in an even less welcoming time, Mama Darleena believes that manners can benefit everyone. D (just "D"), a skeptical administrator played by Meighan Gerachis, warns her it's going to be a tough sell.

At first, some of the students show up because they heard there would be food. Some students are more forthcoming, and others take a while to get to know. Ariela (Rehema Mertinez) is a bit older than the rest, and fairly candid about using her body to make her living. Jonelle (Alyssandra Taylor) is outgoing as well, but not as settled into her identity as she would like to think.

Beta (Jay Simmons), on the other hand, sits in the back of the classroom and doesn't say more than a couple of words until far into the play. And one character, played by Jay Owen Eisenberg, is so overwhelmed by the newness of her experience that she hasn't chosen a name. The others call her "Lady" and it sticks.

Miss Darleena and her class (Rich Ryan photo)
Each character is in a different stage of their personal journey, even those who identify as cisgender (meaning their gender identity aligns with what they were assigned at birth). Donnie (Ryan Colbert) and Victoria (Jennifer Waweru) are a couple with children, and Logan (Nathan Barlow) is a curious college student.

The students slowly grow in their trust of Mama Darleena and each other, but there is plenty of antagonism along the way. The story of a teacher and her students is not a new one, but the issues these students face are not ones we see playing out on stage very often.

Playwright Philip Dawkins based his play on the real-life Gloria Allen, and sat in on her classes, and the play feels very authentic as a result. Charm just premiered last year in Chicago, and Mixed Blood's production is the first to achieve authentic casting, thanks to a nationwide search for trans actors. (The program helpfully lists preferred pronouns along with the cast and crew bios.)

As a person without a lot of experience in this community, I found the play enlightening, heartwarming, and very entertaining. Some of the performances felt a little unpolished, but it seemed appropriate for a play about people who are doing quite a bit of acting in life as they try to forge their unique identities. This is an important play for the world we live in right now, as it reminds us that trans people, like all people, are not a monolithic "they" but individuals trying to live their authentic lives. And isn't that what we are all striving for?

Every performance is followed by an opportunity to discuss the play with some of the people involved. And don't forget that with Mixed Blood's "Radical Hospitality" program, admission is free on a first come/first served basis starting two hours before every show. Or you can purchase advance tickets online or by phone. But go, and support this enlightening and entertaining show.