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Review: ‘Charm’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC

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If you think teaching manners to a group of outcast runaways sounds like a joke—ridiculous at best, and irrelevant or possibly dangerous at worst—then think again. Because the idea of offering lessons in uplifting behavior to people who see themselves as undeserving is neither new nor hard to believe.

Of course, it helps to have a few laughs along the way.

And there are plenty of laughs in Charm, the award-winning dark comedy now having its regional debut at Mosaic Theater Company of DC.

Based on a true story, Charm is the tale of a 67-year-old transgender woman who volunteers to teach etiquette at a center for homeless, transgender and gender non-conforming kids. Of course the center couldn’t care less about manners. They just want programs that get the kids off  the streets and allow them to feel safe, at least for a while.

B’Ellana Duquesne as Mama. Photo by Stan Barouh.

But the formidable Mama—her full name is ‘Mama Darleena Andrews’—wants more than that.

She wants these kids—whose ranks include teenage hookers and thieves, gang members and parolees, college students ambivalent about their gender identity and dreamers who are almost invisible—to find dignity and accept their own worth as human beings.

It’s a tall order, but Mama manages by imposing rules.  No food fights. No insults. Pants are to be pulled up. Notes are to be taken.

To encourage her subjects, she inspires them with tales of her own story-book life, which consists of church on Sundays, appropriate dress and dinner with her lady friends.

As portrayed by newcomer B’Ellana Duquesne, it’s a bravura performance that’s all the more impressive because she was offered the part at the last minute, just a day before rehearsals began.

Deciding that the role of a transgender woman should be played by a member of that community, DC stage veteran KenYatta Rogers, who was originally slated for the role, decided to step aside. He is now Associate Director, working with Director Natsu Onoda Power.

Considering the power of her performance, Duquesne’s experience—both as a transgender woman and as an actor—is surprisingly limited.   Born Jack Eng, she started out as a radio announcer and a high school drama teacher, then settled, as a male, into a 30-year career in healthcare. She returned to the theatre—and assumed her female identity—just five years ago, when Charm Director Natsu Onoda Power cast her in a small role in The T Party.

Charm opens with Mama herself, center-stage,  addressing the audience.  “Good evening,” she says, then adds, as she peels off her ladylike gloves, “Everybody needs charm.”

The delivery of that line marks the beginning of a deluge of zingers, offered by a cast of actors and aided by a creative/technical team as inspired as it is talented.

Kimberly Gilbert gives a wonderful performance as the put-upon program-director, caught between the “rules” laid down by a board of directors and the “rules” of etiquette. Her posture and tone of voice radiate cynicism and bureaucracy.

Justin Weaks plays the polar opposite. As Jonelle, the prostitute with what look like the longest legs in theatre history, he plays a smart comic.

A throwback to the female impersonators of yore (who were mostly not trans at all), Weaks commands the stage no matter what he does. Even the simplest acts, such as writing notes on the white board or stretching out on a table, are hilarious.

Justin Weaks (Jonelle) (center), Joe Brack (Lady), Jade Jones (Victoria), Nyla Rose (Ariella), Clayton Pelham Jr. (Beta), and Samy El-Noury (Logan). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Joe Brack is another presence, whose sight gags—one involves eating, another involves shuffling a deck of cards—animate a character called Lady as well as her avatar, Emily Post.

Ariella, the most blatantly sexy of the trans women, is played by Nyla Rose deGroat with sullen bravado. Louis E. Davis plays Donnie, the hapless husband who neglects his kids, while Victoria, his wife, is particularly funny when explaining how she knows he’s fooling around.

Logan, the unlikeliest of the group, is a college-bound boy who is not sure whether he’s gay or trans. Played by Samy El-Noury, he adds a note of innocence to the proceedings, much like the ingenue in a straight comedy.  Clayton Pelham, Jr. is Beta, Logan’s opposite, a sinister-looking rapper with scary secrets to hide. .

Pulling all the strings and keeping the tension alive are Technical Director William M. Woodard and Production Stage Manager James Holbrook.  Together, they turn the single set into a shifting diorama, as surprising, sometimes, as the lights that keep turning on  and off.

The single set, designed by Daniel Conway, consists of a checker board linoleum floor, some beat-up tables and chairs and a whiteboard. Based on the LBGT Center in Chicago—where the real Mama actually conducted her charm school—the set could in fact be any institution where budgets are minimal and the surroundings are deliberately demeaning.

Kat Fleshman’s props further define the classroom, with crumpled paper bags littering the floor and overturned chairs that must be picked up before each session.

Charm is full of visual and verbal jokes. The set, for example, periodically goes dark because of a cost-saving effort. Someone has installed motion-detecting sensors. As a result, the performers jump up and down, madly waving at the bulbs. Lighting Designer Max Doolittle has turned a feature of modern life into a fixture of farce. Another scene—in which the motley crew learns ballroom dancing—involves a musical joke. Sound Designer Roc Lee provides us with blasts of heavy metal, followed by the genteel notes of the fox trot and the waltz.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz has outdone himself with sensational outfits for Jonelle, each one funnier than the last. For Lady, there are elegant long skirts, worn over sneakers and tights.

Mama herself is adorned in a decorous red dress, toned down by a jacket and a firmness that belies her gentility. It is, in fact, a firmness that comes of listening to these kids and taking them seriously. Their response is unconditional love.

Charm was originally commissioned by Chicago’s Northlight Theatre and had its world premiere in 2015 at Steppenwolf, winning two 2016 Jefferson Awards. Since then it has been staged in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

The New York premiere of Charm is scheduled for  fall 2017. DC theatregoers can beat their New York counterparts by seeing this amazing cast and production now at Mosaic.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Charm plays through January 29, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

Meet Mama Gloria Allen, the inspiration behind Charm:

Note: Here are some cast changes:
From January 12-15, 2017, the role of “Jonelle” will be played by Desmond Bing.
From January 18-29, 2017, the role of “Victoria” will be played by Tamieka Chavis.

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