Philip Dawkins’ Charm takes on a high order: it wants to charm you.
And to do that its lead character, Mama, has to be more than charming. She has to charm your disbelief, your cynical 21st century self.
And in this skeptical, yet celebrity-driven age, which has reduced “charm” to a “heart” on a gold bracelet, or to a cereal brand with a “Lucky” added to it, cynicism and disbelief are sold at a premium, while charm’s old-fashioned façade can be picked up for a nickel at a Saturday morning flea market.
Yes, that ability to arouse delight or to sway the hardened as if by magic, that power no longer resides in our contemporary parlance. The much vaunted, ubiquitous celebrity has stolen it away, not with fabulous achievements but with digital fakery.
And, as a result, we are much the lesser.
Fortunately, Dawkins’ Charm and its utterly charming B’ellana Duquesne as Mama look so much like the Eternal Matriarch (or Great Mother, if you prefer), full of love and scold, grace and dignity, that by end of show you’ll be opening doors for the lady-like and shaking hands with anyone posing with a square jaw.
This script is, most definitely, as much an emotional plea for decorum and good manners as it is a deeply woven discussion about gender and identity, trans and not so much.
Set in Chicago, on the rough side of town, you’ll find no cookie-cutter answers here. No “my way or the highway” set of academic dictates on the way things “are” or “should” be.
At this transgender Charm School, etiquette rules, and etiquette is, as Mama tell us, gender specific, because it’s simpler that way (particularly for straight folk); and, when everything is either up in the air or going down the tubes, simple is good, even if it misses the mark on this occasion or with that “they”.
In many ways Charm is written for a new generation, folks who do not have a clue who Emily Post is or was. This is the Emily (1872 – 1960) whose writings on good manners established her fame (the Emily Post Institute is busy to this day).
In Charm she and Mama understand manners and dignity:
Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory.
Emily also wasn’t afraid of a little contradiction:
Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.
Nothing is less important than which fork you use. Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.
In the end, what’s most important is:
A sensitive awareness to the needs of others.
And that is exactly what exudes from every pore of Charm and its wonderfully diverse ensemble: Kimberly Gilbert, Justin Weaks, Nyla Rose, Louis E. Davis, Jade Jones, Clayton Pelham, Jr., Joe Brack, and Samy El-Noury.
Natzu Onoda Power directs this funny and deeply moving depiction of social change at its most charming.
Her production team consists of Daniel Conway (sets), Matthew Buttrey (associate sets), Max Doolittle (lights), Frank Labovitz (costumes), Roc Lee (sound), and Kat Fleshman (properties).
And a special hats off to Labovitz who keeps the costumes coming in full representation of how the characters are charmed into new, more delightful phases of themselves.
In a world that’s rapidly changing, in which history is a dirty word (at best) or forgotten (at worst), in which tradition keeps losing its importance to the new relation or techno-gadget, it’s sometimes good to be reminded that the past didn’t get it all wrong.
In fact, the past might indeed have something to teach the present.
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.
Ravelle Brickman’s review of Charm.