POST: 'Charm' - beyond what meets the eye

What's it about?

Set in Chicago, a "senior" transwoman by the name of Mama Darleena Andrews sets out to inspire and transform the lives of a group of inner-city youth.

What I experienced?

With the Lucille Lortel theater in sight, I excitedly stepped out of my Uberpool only to immediately plant my foot into a puddle. Great. There were only five minutes until showtime, so I had no choice but to gather myself quickly (AKA – shake off what I could from my waterlogged sneaker) and rush into the theater.

As I finally sat in my seat, I felt my body shivering. I knew I had a cold, and now here I was with a wet foot and no sweater under streams of blasting AC. (Apologies to the people sitting next to me, because they had to listen as I sniffled and blew my nose all night – not a cute look, and no, I wouldn't recommend it.)

Though as much as I was feeling under the weather, it was only a matter of time until Charm kicked some life into me. Actually, a whole lotta life. From the very moment the characters came out on stage, they were fabulous and rowdy and bustling with energy. The leading lady, Mama Darleena Andrews, was vivacious and full of – you guessed it – charm. At 67 years old and having lived most of her life out as a transwoman, Mama set up a "Charm School" for a group of disadvantaged young adults at the queer community center. Tensions rose quickly, seeing as how not everyone present was necessarily trans or queer. Immediately, the politics of "safe spaces" were questioned, as well as a dialogue surrounding labels in the first place.

Throughout the play, Mama had to struggle with many of these elements of "PC" culture. Being from an older generation, she runs into trouble due to her sometimes outdated perspectives. It was interesting, at times, to notice the reactions of the audience around me in contrast to how I felt about these issues. Often, it seemed that audience members laughed at terms like "tranny" and nodded in agreement when Mama said to "have pity on the straight people" for their confusion and that it might be necessary for trans or nonbinary people to adjust to gain their acceptance. This idea certainly rubbed me the wrong way – I don't think it's fair to ask anyone to change their identity so that it fits categories that are easy for me to understand and accept. Rather, shouldn't we embrace even (perhaps especially) those who challenge our norms? I only hope that audience members, many of whom were likely from the same generation as Mama, ultimately realized what was harmful about that perspective.

Nonetheless, I loved that the play still allowed the identities of each character to remain multifaceted and complex, and most importantly, that they were all celebrated on an Off Broadway stage. Each character reminded me that it is impossible to understand a person based on their outward appearance alone. To assume anything about anyone's identity, I realized, was a huge a disservice to the relationship you could cultivate. Mama Darleena Andrews seemed acutely aware of this, as she tried to bridge the gap between her students and taught them to see beyond what meets the eye. This search for connection and acceptance was at the core of this play, and it ultimately led to a feel-good, fairytale-like experience, for me, where everyone accepted and loved each other by the end.

I say "fairytale-like" because this is something that is still a struggle for communities today all around the world. Part of me left the theater feeling dubious about the effects of what I'd seen. Did everyone in that audience realize that this play was not the lived reality of every trans person? It's clear that the play was enforcing an image of a hopeful future, where #TRANSLIVESMATTER is universally understood, accepted, and practiced. But until that is a reality, this play felt like nothing more than a dream. While it was a beautiful one at that, it was sad to realize that the real world hasn't yet brought it to life.

Want to see it?

What did you experience?

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