Reviewed by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move
In no way is Charm, currently playing at Celebration Theatre on Hollywood Row, unpredictable or a shocker or immediately enthralling. Notwithstanding a very ‘everything’ Mama Darleena (Lana Houston), exquisitely coiffed and perfectly winsome in every scene.
Let’s face it, if one has ever lived or shopped anywhere remotely by the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and La Brea Ave, in Los Angeles, it’s never been hard to notice the [colorful] array of working girls, pre-ops and other gender spectrum that regularly hang out.
On the surface, Charm doesn’t cut new cloth or break new ground in so much as how today’s transgender, gender-neutral community might react to it. The simplistic title and kickin’ club pop interludes, certainly add flavor, but they merely allude to the superficiality of the moment, not the richness of the material.
For in Charm, there is a solid, singular point that screams loudly, making this story in reality, one of the more important plays a young person of any gender should see and experience.
Set in “The Center,” a shelter and safe space for LGBTQ, Charm explores the ever more complex issue of Gender Identity through Mama Darleena Andrews, an older, black transgender woman who arrives at the center to teach a class in charm to a youth group.
It’s ridiculous. Or so everyone thinks, including the center’s director of programming, ‘D’ (Rebekah Walendzak) who is happy to have Darleena there, but unnerved by her old-fashioned and potentially harmful methods of distinction.
And here’s where this world gets sticky. This particular group of young and not so young people are many things: on the street, poor, outcast, isolated, living with extraordinary, real fear, hiding in plain sight in gangs, incredibly conflicted about themselves or crossing back and forth from boy to girl at will like a Game of Life.
When Darleena steps in, the entire idea of ‘gender-neutral’ is completely challenged. She herself made a choice long ago about her own sex and in more than merely subtle ways, is instructing these young people to do the same. There are the makeup classes, the clothing choices, the tea party preparations and the dancing lessons which require a definitively unambiguous boy or girl partner.
None of this goes over well at first. But interestingly enough, against current transgender ideals of non-conformity, through etiquette and some old-school let’s get real, Darleena opens their respective eyes to the actual possibility of not just choosing the identity they want, or the labels of one. But living it. Ultimately they learn to accept themselves in their own unique ways.
Narratively and choreographically Charm is a bit of a tangle. But considering the chaos in which all these characters live, when the most truthful moments are given their deserved pauses, they land with considerable and definitive impact. And there is a substantial amount of hilarity and downright honest to goodness street smarts. The tough relationships are revealing.
Written by Philip Dawkins
Direct by Michael Matthews
With (in alphabetical order): Chris Aguila, Esteban Andres Cruz, Armand Fields, Tre Hall, Alexander Hogy, Lana Houston, Ashley Romans, Shoniqua Shandai, Rebekah Walendzak