Edward J. Olmos’s Jaime Escalante did it in Stand And Deliver. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Louanne Johnson did it in Dangerous Minds. Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackery did it in To Sir With Love. And now Lana Houston’s Mama Darleena Andrews does it in Charm, transforming the lives of a classroomful of rebellious teens, only this time round the teacher in question is a transgender sexagenerian and her students an unruly bunch of homeless LGBT teens. Talk about a setup for an edgy, funny, and (you guessed it) heartstrings-tugging crowd-pleaser, the latest all-around winner from Celebration Theatre.
It’s with a certain trepidation that Chicago Youth Center director D (Rebekah Walendak) agrees to Mama Darlin’s proposal—to teach Emily Post to a half-dozen or so hungry kids whose main purpose in showing up at the center is the free eats, a fact made painfully clear when each and every one of Mama’s first-day students grab grub and run the second there’s pizza on the table.
The following week, however, they stick around, even when it turns out their Chanel-clad instructor is on to their tricks and offers etiquette in lieu of snacks.
Students don’t come any more ragtag than sassy transgender hooker Ariela (Esteban Andres Cruz), leggy community college glamazon Jonelle (Armand Fields), instantly endearing wallflower Lady (Chris Aguila), slight but surly gangbanger Beta (Ashley Romans), and boy-girl couple Donnie and Victoria (Tre Hall and Shoniqua Shandai), whose presence amidst a bunch of gay and trans kids would seem on the surface to be entirely hunger-inspired.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen any of the abovementioned teacher-student flicks (or Mr. Holand’s Opus, or Freedom Writers, or Lean On Me, or who knows how many more) that for every one of Mama Darlin’s two steps forward, there will be at least one step back. There’s sure to be at least one rotten apple in the bunch, there’s bound to be friction with the higher-ups, and there will certainly be tension if not downright hostility amongst some of her students.
At the same time, it’s equally guaranteed that these easily pigeonholed kids, and that includes Logan (Alexander Hogy), the gay twink who later joins the class, will end up defying our expectations and touching our hearts thanks to the love and trust and inspiration of an extraordinary woman whose generational beliefs (there is no singular “they” in Mama’s world) may run counter to theirs, but whose love and devotion knows no bounds.
Making Mama Darlin’s story all the more remarkable is this. Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins (Failure: A Love Story, The Homosexuals) based her on real-life life-changer “Mama Gloria” Allen, profiled in the Chicago Tribune a few years back and now given fictionalized tribute at Celebration Theatre, leading lady Houston’s journey from Janet Jackson’s male love interest in “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” (and Playgirl centerfold hunk) to fierce and fabulous trans woman makes her own story as worthy of staging.
The stunning Houston (whose performance can only get more confident as the run progresses) is more than matched by an all-around superb young multi-racial supporting cast, each of whom gets their cathartic moment to shine under Michael Matthews’ once again inspired direction. (Tough as it is to single out one and not another, I’d be remiss not to salute Aguila’s heartbreaking Lady, Cruz’s repressed-rage-filled Ariela, and Romans’ astonishingly expectation-defying Beta, though Fields, Hall, Hogy, Shandai, and Wallendzak are equally memorable.)
Scenic designer Archer Alstaetter’s realistically detailed classroom set (kudos too to properties designer Michael O’Hara), Matthew Brian Denman’s striking lighting, Allison Dillard’s pitch-perfect character-revealing costumes, and Cricket S. Myers’ electric sound design mix of urban funk and dramatic effects are all Grade A, and as always, director Matthews’ scene changes are almost worth the price of admission.
Charm is produced by Rebecca Eisenberg. Erinn Anova, Chrisanne Eastwood, Mark Giberson, and Tommy Vergason are associate producers.
Christopher Maikish is assistant director. Estey DeMerchant is production stage manager.
Casting is by Jami Rudofsky. Isabella Boose, Beth Fraser, Timothy Michael, Sandy Olsen, Anny Rosario, and Michael A. Shepperd are understudies.
Whether you’re as much of a sucker for “inspirational teacher” stories as I am, or simply love terrific writing, direction, and acting, Charm is likely to do for you what Mama Darlin did for her students. In other words, be sure to come prepared with an extra pair of trousers since Charm is gonna charm the pants off you!
Celebration Theatre at Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood.
September 9, 2016
Photos: Matthew Brian Denman