Three years ago, Northlight Theatre Artistic Director BJ Jones read a newspaper article about trans activist Gloria Allen and her efforts at Chicago's Center on Halsted to teach trans youth basic etiquette and to serve as a mentor in weekly classes. Jones thought that Allen's work was worthy of exploration in a play, and now that notion has come to fruition in Northlight Theatre's world premiere of Charm by gay playwright Philip Dawkins.
But Dawkins initially wanted to turn down Jones' play commissionand that was despite Northlight previously producing a few of Dawkins' plays written for children.
"I had questions about whether or not I had agency to write this play honestly," said Dawkins, worrying about charges of misappropriation in dramatizing members of the trans community.
Nonetheless, Dawkins followed Jones' advice to meet and talk with Allen. According to Dawkins, she instantly put him at ease.
"[Allen] immediately welcomes everybody into her room, into her life. She's a calming, gracious, welcoming person who reminded me of some older ladies in my life who are very important," Dawkins said. "I talked to her about she would feel about me working on your voice and she said, 'I don't care as long as you make me sound fabulous.'"
For about six months, Dawkins regularly attended Allen's young trans community gatherings. And during that time, Dawkins said he was always upfront to those attending about who he was and why he was there observing and participating. Dawkins also offered to leave the room if meeting participants were uncomfortable with his presence.
"The safety and the sanctity of the space was more important to getting the story," Dawkins said. "But everyone was super-generous with me and I think I learned a lot, not just about the subjects of this play, but also a lot about etiquette and comportment."
As Allen pointed out, the rules of etiquette are constantly evolving and changing. This notion struck Dawkins as an interesting parallel he since was among people who themselves who were transitioning and actively questioning societal rules around gender.
"It was a reminder to me that I need to stay on top of what's polite and what makes people comfortable," Dawkins said. "One of those things was to don't assume you know people's gender. And it's okay to ask and it's okay to say you don't know something. And it's also okay for somebody to choose that day not to be your educator. Not everybody has to walk around and teach you manners."
Dawkins soon realized that his play couldn't be a docudrama about Allen's work and that he would need to fictionalize some of the situations and people to make things more compelling for the stage. For instance, the cast of nine for Charm includes characters like a Latina trans woman, a cisgender straight Black couple and a gay suburban teen. And as for Allen herself, she has become the African-American trans woman character known as "Mama Darleena Andrews."
"What Gloria has created is a room that goes out of its way to remove obstacles," Dawkins said. "But in writing a play, you actually have to look at the obstacles in the way of what people want. And so I basically took what I witnessed in terms of things that were handled beautifully in the room in real life and thought, well, what if that hadn't been handled beautifully?"
Rather than staging Charm in Northlight's Skokie home, director BJ Jones felt it was important to keep it close to its Chicago origins. The close confines of the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre was also an important consideration.
"One of the great strengths of Philip's play is that it is intimate and that it provides our audience with the opportunity to actually fell as if they are in the classso they feel that sense of warmth and understanding," Jones said. "It's the kind of play that draws its strength and power from the Chicago storefront experience."
Both Dawkins and Jones are pleased that Allen herself has been a part of Charm readings and some rehearsals so far. She even took the trouble to provide personal makeup tips for actor Dexter Zollicoffer who portrays her fictionalized self.
For her efforts, Northlight will pay Allen an honorarium. Dawkins has also worked Allen into the royalty arrangements for any future productions of Charm.
"I quite literally could not have written this story if she hadn't lived it first and if she didn't welcome me," said Dawkins, adding that Allen never asked for remuneration even though she had every right to. "I think she's fascinating and we're really only focusing on one thing about her. But ( Allen's ) life is extensive and amazing. It could be a series or a book."
Northlight Theatre's world premiere of Charm by Philip Dawkins plays from Wednesday, Oct. 14, through Sunday, Nov. 8, at Steppenwolf Theatre's Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St. Previews run through Sunday, Oct 18, with an official press opening at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21. Regular-run performances are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays with 3 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays ( 6 p.m. show only on Sunday, Oct. 18 ).
Tickets are $20-$40, with student tickets at $15 ( subject to availability ). Call 312-335-1650, or visit www.northlight.org or www.steppenwolf.org for more information .
See related coverage at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Northlight-Theatre-takes-audiences-to-Charm-school/53075.html .