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Northlight Theatre takes audiences to 'Charm' school
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-10-07

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When beloved Chicago transgender advocate 'Mama' Gloria Allen attends the opening night and world premiere of Charm, presented by the Skokie-based Northlight Theatre in the intimate setting of the Steppenwolf Garage Oct. 14, it will be one of the most extraordinary evenings in her 70 years of life.

It has been a life spent nurturing young transgender and gender nonconforming people in the discovery of their beauty, confidence, voice and noble place in a world still reluctant to offer them her treasured embrace.

The rest of the audience surrounding Allen may not understand just how unique of a position she is in. For as the houselights and chatter fade into silent anticipation, Allen will be as nervously excited as the actors preparing to take the stage in a play inspired by her own life and work.

According to Northlight Theatre, Charm centers on "the colorful inner workings of an etiquette class taught by Mama Darleena Andrews, an African-American transgender woman, in an LGBTQ organization known as The Center. Mama attempts to share her rules of proper behavior with a youth group ranging in sexuality, race and gender identity from a Latina transwoman to a cisgender straight Black couple to a gay suburban teen. Though her students initially struggle to see how etiquette relates to their daily battles with identity, poverty and prejudice, Mama's powerful love and unapologetic attitude eventually win them over."

"It's so surreal that a producer and a writer thought about me and decided to put me out there," Allen told Windy City Times. "The audience won't know that I was the inspiration for this play."

That inspiration was seeded in 2012 when Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones read a feature article about Allen detailing aspects of her life and how it inspired the charm school she ran at Lakeview's Center on Halsted. There she provided loving guidance to Chicago's homeless LGBTQ youth on how to live and present with dignity and self-respect.

"She is the essence of a Chicago story," Jones said. "This is a city that burnt down and had to rebuild, that had to turn a river around. It's a city that realizes that it has a racist and sexist background but is trying to grow, change and include. That's the story that needs to be told over and over again."

So Jones met award-winning playwright Philip Dawkins for breakfast and told him there might be a play in Allen's own history of growth, change and inclusion.

"BJ said 'I think this an amazing story about our community. She sounds like a fascinating woman'," Dawkins explained. "So I called [Allen] through some mutual friends and she couldn't have been more gracious and charming."

Dawkins—who has garnered city and nationwide acclaim for works including Miss Marx or the Involuntary Side Effect of Living, The Homosexuals and Failure: A Love Story—attended one of Allen's charm schools at the Center on Halsted.

That was all it took.

"I called BJ and I said 'this woman is like my grandmother. She is somebody I would be excited to spend some time with even if no play comes out of it. We're on to something,'" Dawkins recalled.

What they were on to was a story no one else has told and one that became a passion-project for Jones, Dawkins and everyone involved, including the actors, designers and technicians as well as Northlight itself which took the unusual step of committing its resources to staging Charm at a different venue.

Jones explained that the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre was chosen because of its proximity to the hub of Allen's work and its intimate layout, which will allow audiences to feel as if they are also students of the charm school, just as Dawkins had been during his script's development.

"Philip would constantly come to charm school and sit in on my class, watch what I was doing and the response I was getting," Allen said. "He would take notes and talk to the students. I was excited just for him to be there and see the work that I do. It was such a good time."

Dawkins attended class for the next six months. Identifying as queer, at first he was frightened when he introduced himself, in an out-of-place way, as he introduced himself to the students as a writer collecting material.

Characteristically, Allen would have none of it.

"I felt immensely welcome," Dawkins said. "Mama is so good at making people feel individually welcome within a group. The overwhelming feeling throughout the class is generosity. Everybody is coming to that room for a different reason and from a different place. What I found, more often than not, was people hungry to share their stories. The homeless community, displaced teens and people with no place to go don't get listened to a lot and the opportunity to come to a room where there's a woman who stands up in the front who says 'I'm here to listen to you and give you my advice on what I just heard' is huge. It was comforting and inviting to be a part of it."

In talking with Allen, the playwright was awed by the narrative of a woman born in a Kentucky farmhouse in 1945 who took the Southern grace, strength and loving acceptance bequeathed to her by her mother, grandmother and great aunt on a journey of self-discovery through the tumultuous cornerstones of the Black and LGBTQ civil-rights movements, including being present at the 1969 Stonewall riots.

"You can either read about history or you can go out to tea with history," Dawkins said. "[Allen] is so open about her past and what she's gone through is both beautiful and harsh. History is sometimes just sitting across from us. It made me hungry for a Chicago that I never knew."

With so much material, Dawkins initially struggled with the kind of story he wanted to tell. He began to develop a first draft for what would eventually become Charm.

"We knew we wanted it to focus on [Allen's] charm class," Dawkins explained. "That hasn't changed from draft to draft. Because every character in the play is somewhere in the trans continuum, it becomes less about people sitting around talking about how trans they are and more about generational divides and how we take care of and nurture each other across those lines. In this idea of ushering in future generations while respecting the past, I tried to model characters who represented extremes in the world along those generational and class divides."

Dawkins sent the first draft to Allen and waited for her reaction.

"I read it from cover-to-cover and I was amazed," Allen said. "I had to pinch myself that this was really happening. It was a real thrill."

It is a sentiment shared by Jones, who has served as Northlight's artistic director for 18 of the theater's 41 seasons. During his tenure, the organization has provided a venue for multiple new works in accord with the theater's mission "to promote change of perspective and encourage compassion by exploring the depth of our humanity across a bold spectrum of theatrical experiences."

"Charm is in the sweet spot of our mission," Jones said, "and both in conversation with her and as depicted in our play, Mama is the essence of it—her sense of welcome, of 'yes and…' in the theatrical mindset of accepting others and moving together in community."

Jones is directing the play. Both he and Dawkins found an enthusiastic collaborator in Allen, who read each of the drafts Dawkins submitted and is currently sitting in on a few rehearsals watching the nine-member cast inject their talent and perspectives into not only the physical manifestations of words on a page but the actual lives that influenced them.

"It's the story of my students, but with me in mind," Allen said. "It's fun watching them. I can relate to what's being talked about. Some of the young adults [in the play] have bad attitudes and need somebody to listen to them. That's originally what my school was about—being able to show the love to them. The message [of Charm] is that we're human beings and we need to be treated like that. Everybody has a problem. Some are able to cope with it and some aren't. Some of them need a person, like Mama D in the play, to help out. People need to learn about us."

For Dawkins and Jones, their education about the transgender community and its challenges grew in exponential symbiosis with the play's development. According to Jones, it has enhanced his understanding of human nature even within the habitual confines of a theatrical mindset.

"What Philip taught me is that there is no one [trans] community," Jones said. "As a cisgender male, one has a tendency to think it is binary. That is simply not true. Its complexity encourages us to understand the broader spectrum. Being in the theater, it's easy to think of people as either one thing or another—typecasting as 'that's what this director does or this is what this actor does'. The human tendency to codify, in a simplistic way, people's natures is wrong. We need to get more granular in our observations and broaden our understanding. It's more complex. The job is bigger. As Mama says 'you're teaching me a whole new set of pronouns'."

"I knew that there was a turning of the backs from trans people," Dawkins added. "I didn't know how far turned away people can be. The lack of support is depressing. Where we fall into trouble is when we start putting adjectives on people that describe how different they are and we sideline them. It's a ridiculous, selfish exercise that doesn't help things."

Currently on hiatus, Allen's charm school was a haven where such adjectives simply did not exist—a safe space in every sense of the word and one who's singular existence did not go unnoticed by a playwright who has written about community, change and the human need and ability to express desires and dreams.

"The fact that we live in a city and a world with places where people are uninvited must change," Dawkins said. "The conversation around that must be one which challenges the idea that there are spaces that don't belong to some people. I live in Boystown and I see the efforts by people to uninvite others to our neighborhood. Whether because of color, class or income, people pointing at anybody and saying 'that person does not belong in this part of the city' is the greatest evil for any neighborhood."

Ironically, the resulting lack of opportunity that trans individuals face in finding work even in the arts led to a challenge when it came to Northlight's year-long effort to cast the play's three trans-identified characters and, in particular, the lead role.

Mama Darleena Andrews is played by Dexter Zollicoffer—an accomplished stage and television actor but, unlike his character's inspiration, a cisgender male.

"We reached out to casting directors on both coasts," Jones explained. "We advertised in all sorts of publications. We were extensive and exhaustive in our efforts. I reached out to Alexandra Billings for help in finding folks."

Billings is a celebrated actress who performed throughout Chicago before becoming the first transgender woman to play such a role on television in Romy and Michelle—A New Beginning.

"We did have some people who identified as trans audition," Dawkins said.

"But they were in their 20s," Jones added. "So that wasn't going to work as [the 70-year-old] Mama Gloria."

"My question is 'why couldn't we find a 60-plus-year-old African American actress who is trans to play this part?'" Dawkins wondered. "That to me is an issue. How can we provide more opportunities for trans people? What's exciting to me and allows me to be hopeful about the future is the young trans people who showed up [to audition]. We can put opportunities out there that say 'don't stop acting. There are roles for you past your 50s.' If you are a young [actor] who thinks that transitioning is going to destroy your career, I want to be part of the theatre makers who say 'that is 100 percent not true'."

"At the end of the day, we feel we've chosen the best actors who came in to audition for us for the roles and who will do honor to Philip's words, the spirit of the play and Mama Gloria," Jones noted.

It is much in that spirit that Allen herself has given her stamp of approval to each of Charm's actors, even offering her own encouragement to Zollicoffer when she met the artist during the first read-through of the script.

"I talked with the entire cast and Dexter was so thrilled at meeting me," Allen recalled. "But he said, 'I'm not going to look like Mama Gloria,' and I told him, 'Don't even worry about that.' I'm not an actress. I couldn't play the part so I sat in and did the make-up for him and he looked fantastic. I gave him self-confidence while he could study my mannerisms. He is playing the essence of me. The audience aren't going to see me up there, but my spirit. I don't think it's a bad thing to have a male playing that because he's basically going through the same things I've gone through. You know, trans people may get mad about it but they were not showing up for the part. We're all in the LGBTQ basket and we have to learn how to embrace each other. There are no boundaries. You're a human being and I love that and I want people to know that."

When Allen takes her seat in the Steppenwolf Garage auditorium on opening night alongside her family and friends, she will be as much rooting for Zolliciffer and the cast as she is for her fellow audience members to understand the struggles of a community who needed "to go into a safe place to connect with each other and feel 'hey, I'm not the only one in this plight. There is someone else who is suffering just as I am.'"

"I hope the audience gets the sense that trans people are human too," Allen added. "I want them to look at us in a different and positive light."

It is a desire echoed by the two men who fell under her spell of inclusion, understanding and compassion—qualities which became the watch words of the play they created together.

"Charm is a multi-dimensional Rubik's Cube of points-of-view—a learning and growing experience that's completely accessible," Jones said. "The notion that we have to watch out for each other no matter who we are and that we are all in this together is a huge take-away. The audience, in their proximity to the piece and its people, are going to feel that. It's impossible not to."

"I want people to walk away from Charm with 'holy crap, this is a play about me, my family, my neighbors and my community'," Dawkins added. "Mama Gloria is, in every sense, a Chicago-bred community organizer. The best-case scenario would be this play starting conversation and questions around 'What can I do?'"

In order to put an exclamation point on that scenario, there will be talk-back sessions held during the run of the play from Oct. 14 through Nov. 8.

According to Northlight, the sessions will not only include members of the artistic staff and will also feature guest speakers who specialize in LGBTQ issues:

—Oct. 22: Scout Bratt, outreach and education director, Chicago Women's Health Center

—Oct. 24: Josie Paul, director of TransLife Center, Chicago House

—Oct. 29: Rebecca Kling, program manager of TransTech Social Enterprises and board member at Illinois Safe Schools Alliance

—Nov. 7: Dr. Robert Garofalo, director of the Gender and Sex Development Program at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago

For tickets and more information, visit http://www.northlight.org/pages/on_stage/393.php.

More about Charm is at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/SCOTTISH-PLAY-SCOTT-Creating-Charm/53069.html .


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