Anyone who’s been a teacher or who's been otherwise charged with supervising troubled adolescents will understand straight off the problems facing Mama Darlin (Lana Houston), the beguiling nub of Philip Dawkins’ compelling Charm.
Mama — not your typical authority figure — is a (gorgeous) 60-year-old transgender woman volunteering her time at a social service center for homeless LGBTQ youth in Chicago, where she’s tasked with counseling a group of teens, many of whom are transgender like herself. Is it job skills she’s teaching? Literacy? Accounting? No, what she’s promising to teach is — charm.
It’s a concept alien not only to her students but to the head of the center, a brusque, no-nonsense individual named D (Rebekah Walendzak). Though unquestionably well-intentioned, D’s mainly a bureaucrat, at sea when it comes to communicating with this rough, rambunctious group. Her relationship with them is pretty much limited to providing a meal and sometime shelter.
Mama, on the other hand, knows what it’s like to be out on the street; her own family turned her out when she was 14, and she’s since suffered all the bullying and torment and violence reserved for the cruelly marginalized.
But none of this is readily apparent when this poised and beautiful person first stands before this circle of youth. This first time, they do what D has more or less warned they would: Grab the pizza and run, leaving Mama’s class in etiquette over before it’s even begun.
Gradually, however, Mama manages to go where no adult has: into the hearts and minds of these kids, whose trust she eventually wins. And one by one they begin to grasp her message: that manners can be a way of giving respect to others, and in return garnering respect from others and for oneself.
If this sounds like a soapy message drama, be assured, it mostly isn’t. Directed by Michael Matthews, each of Dawkins’ characters is three-dimensionally crafted, including Ariella (Esteban Andres Cruz), the tough-talking streetwalker and thief, and the first to warm to Mama, presenting her with a stolen bracelet; Jonelle (Armand Fields) the toweringly tall trannie with a crush on Logan (Alexander Hogy), a sweet bashful man who, when asked, identifies as “a boy … but gay”; and Beta (Ashley Romans), silent and supercool until his dark secret, in one moving, dramatic moment, emerges.
One of the more interesting scenes of the play is a heated confrontation between Mama (a character based on real-life person Gloria Allen), and the politically correct D, who questions whether tea party etiquette is the right set of skills to be imparting to young people of color, commenting pointedly that it’s condescending and judgmental. It’s clear that D has her own lonely sorrow, and Walendzak creates an excellent foil for the mannered Mama; the ups and downs and eventual evolution of the relationship between these two serve up some of the production’s most satisfying moments.
I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that Charm goes overboard with a kind of mushy upbeat ending, while the first scene, featuring belligerent interaction among the kids, could use tightening and clarity. But this is a fine play overall — and a quality production anchored in Houston’s illuminating performance as the personification of grace.
GO! Celebration Theatre at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood; through Oct. 23. celebrationtheatre.com/charm.