Northlight's 'Charm' a heartbreaking look at sexual identity

  • Mama Darleena (Dexter Zollicoffer, right) counsels Beta (Namir Smallwood) in Northlight Theatre's world premiere of "Charm," by Philip Dawkins.

    Mama Darleena (Dexter Zollicoffer, right) counsels Beta (Namir Smallwood) in Northlight Theatre's world premiere of "Charm," by Philip Dawkins. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • D (Elizabeth Ledo, left), the youth director at an LGBTQ community center, welcomes new etiquette teacher Mama Darleena (Dexter Zollicoffer) in Northlight Theatre's "Charm," running through Nov. 8 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage.

    D (Elizabeth Ledo, left), the youth director at an LGBTQ community center, welcomes new etiquette teacher Mama Darleena (Dexter Zollicoffer) in Northlight Theatre's "Charm," running through Nov. 8 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Jonelle (Armand Fields, right) comforts Lady (Matthew Sherbach) during her identity crisis in Philip Dawkins' "Charm," inspired by the true story of a transgender etiquette teacher at Chicago's Center on Halsted.

    Jonelle (Armand Fields, right) comforts Lady (Matthew Sherbach) during her identity crisis in Philip Dawkins' "Charm," inspired by the true story of a transgender etiquette teacher at Chicago's Center on Halsted. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Posted10/25/2015 7:15 AM

The great thing about theater is it can take us to places we've never been and introduce us to people we've never encountered. Northlight Theatre's "Charm," a moving examination of identity and acceptance by Philip Dawkins, accomplishes exactly that.

Northlight Theatre's BJ Jones commissioned the play after reading a newspaper article about Gloria Allen, a transgender, African-American woman who in 2011 began teaching etiquette classes at Chicago's Center on Halsted, a longtime haven for members of the LGBTQ community. In fact, Northlight is staging its premiere at The Steppenwolf Garage, located just a few blocks south of where Allen holds her charm classes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Developed through Northlight's Interplay Series, Dawkins' fictionalized account of Allen and her students recalls the familiar tale about the devoted educator who transforms her troubled kids. Watching the world premiere reminded me of the 1967 film "To Sir With Love," in which Sidney Poitier's character inspires in his rough students respect for themselves and each other.

In "Charm," Mama Darleena -- the superb Dexter Zollicoffer in a magnetic, multifaceted performance -- does the same. But Dawkins' introspective, funny drama is no mere retread. Directed with clear-eyed empathy by Jones, "Charm" is not nearly as delicate as its title suggests.

Urging her LGBTQ students to pull up their pants and cover their breasts, she instructs them how to make an introduction, pay a compliment and apply makeup to camouflage an Adam's apple, that "nasty speed-bump on the way to glamorous." A steady stream of axioms accompanies Mama's lessons, including the admonition that "respect is a two-way street" and "part of charming is being accepting." For her, proper etiquette helps pave the way to mainstream acceptance, which leads to conflict with the community center's youth director D (a candid, nuanced Elizabeth Ledo). D, who does not identify with a single gender, argues against encouraging young people to adopt traditional (read Caucasian, heterosexual) mores. D also bristles at Mama's suggestion that a student choose a gender and stick with it, calling the advice insensitive and judgmental.

As for the students, most of them are young, poor and alone. All of them are troubled. The oldest is Ariela (an edgy, vulnerable Monica Orozco), a shrewd, transgender sex worker quick to anger and desperate for Mama's approval. The smart, statuesque Jonelle (Armand Fields) is a gay Truman College student who wears women's clothes and attracts the attention of fresh-faced Logan (Awate Serequeberhan), a Notre Dame-bound high school senior from the North Shore.

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The kind, insecure Victoria (the lovable BrittneyLove Smith) and the surly, brooding Donnie (Julian Parker) are a (mostly) heterosexual young couple with two kids and no home.

Matthew Sherbach's performance as the isolated, emotionally fragile Lady -- a young, transgender woman who desperately wants "to be regular" -- tugs at the heartstrings, while the marvelous Namir Smallwood breaks your heart as Beta, the gang banger who pays a terrible price to live his truth.

But the students aren't the only ones wrestling with issues. The pressure of protecting these at-risk young people has clearly taken a toll on D. As for Mama Darleena, having struggled a lifetime to be perceived as female, she finds that, at 61, people don't perceive her at all. It's a realization as emotionally wrenching as any in this painfully honest play.

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