A few years ago, Miss Gloria Allen was having lunch at Chicago’s Center on Halsted, the Midwest’s most comprehensive LGBTQ community center, when she noticed a group of “scantily dressed and boisterous” young trans women making a bit of scene. Allen, who is African American and also transgender, saw an opportunity to help some of the lost youths she often encountered at the Center. She began teaching a charm and etiquette class, an initiative which not only taught students how to dress and carry themselves, but also addressed safe sex, substance abuse, and hormone therapy. Allen wanted a vehicle for these young trans women to show the world they have “class and style.”
“The young trans women there were amazing,” says Allen, who often provided her students with meals and counseling. “All they needed was somebody that cared; I cared about them.” She soon became an icon for many in the community, and word of her influence began to spread—so much so that, one day, playwright Philip Dawkins received a phone call from BJ Jones, the artistic director of Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois, who said to him: “This woman is fantastic. You should write a play about her.” Dawkins went to the Center on Halsted, to see what all the fuss was about, and quickly recognized the theatrical merit in Allen’s story.
Dawkins attended six months of Allen’s etiquette class before sitting down to write Charm. Inspired by Allen’s life, the story follows a 67-year-old black transgender woman named Mama Darleena Andrews and the LGBTQ youths whose lives she changes. The play premiered in 2015 at the Steppenwolf Garage in Chicago in a production from Northlight, and is now in previews Off-Broadway with an all-new diverse cast and creative team. The MCC Theater production, directed by Will Davis, will officially open September 18.
Davis says when it came to casting the New York premiere, “every rock and log across the country was turned over” in an attempt to find actors who would accurately reflect the characters presented on the page—people of color from different backgrounds and struggles who do not prescribe to gender binaries. Davis, who is trans identifying, and casting company Telsey + Co. made a concerted effort to think outside the box by contacting LGBTQ hubs and community centers, and combing through video auditions from across the country. Davis says the team really wanted to “open the door as wide as possible” for trans actors, who often don’t have the same resources as cisgender artists.
“Usually when I’m working on a show, I’m the only one of me for miles…. This space is different,” says Davis. “There’s something relaxing and relieving about that. It also raises the bar.” The director says that when it came to Charm, he decided to throw out a lot of his “boiler plate” approaches to directing. “I really wanted to start from as vulnerable a place as possible and just talk to this group of people about how perfect they are,” he explains, something which felt all the more necessary in the aftermath of recent political affronts to the trans community.
“It’s a pretty scary time for us nationally,” says Davis. “What it does on a day-to-day level is it makes me afraid, not because I can’t serve in the military, it makes me afraid because it kicks open a door for a lot of people to feel like they have license to discriminate in small ways and in big ways. A room like this is an opportunity to create a platform of strength and beauty. Of prowess and skill. Of professionalism.”
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For the entire cast and creative team, headed by Sandra Caldwell as Mama, performing Charm in today’s political climate imbues the production with entirely new meaning. “I think the world has changed. The people [represented in this play] are actively under attack. There’s a regime that wants us all to disappear,” says Dawkins. “I’m so glad that Gloria’s life has given us an opportunity to tell a story about how powerful it is when we’re visible.”
For Dawkins, pointing to icons like Allen and to the success of her students is a powerful argument against hate. “We’re beautiful, vibrant, and important members of society,” says the playwright. “This is a really nice time to be able to say that and have it be true.”
Flip through photos of the cast and creative team meeting the press: