Sitting in my seat on Sunday, Jan. 8 as part of an audience viewing the Mosaic Theater’s season opening of the play “CHARM,” I initially believed that I would “exit stage left” during or before intermission. That was before I allowed the playwright Philip Dawkins’ comedic drama to take shape.
Luckily, I reconsidered my decision and witnessed the full story about Mama Darleena Andrews, a 67-year-old transgender woman, portrayed with skill, emotion and conviction by B’Ellana Duquesne, a transgender actress who continues to garner well-deserved accolades.
The role, inspired by the life and work of Chicago transgender activist Gloria Allen, recalls Allen’s nationally-touted efforts in the development of a unique etiquette class for LGBTQ youth at Chicago’s Center on Halsted.
The play continues through Jan. 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast and is the latest production in the innovative theater company’s “Clamorous Encounters Series: Coming-of-Age in America.”
As the star of the show, Mama Darleena heads an etiquette class for transgender and gender nonconforming youth with a style of mentoring that meets her students at their own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, giving them the tools they need to both overcome prejudice and to love themselves in the midst of their often criticized differences.
Meanwhile, we are emotionally and intellectually challenged by this work and its themes that address the fears and pain of the transgender community that includes both youth and seniors and which has recently emerged as one of the nation’s newest groups of marginalized citizens.
I was taken aback by the raucous laughter, boisterous words of affirmation and then the keenly audible crying that emanated by members of audience throughout the performance.
As the play came to a conclusion, I realized that I have tended to view the transgender community, some with whom I am closely connected, through a fractured lens. The play’s subtle yet powerful message hit me at the core: “We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect just like any other human being.”
Hats off to the play’s director, Natsu Onoa Power, a D.C.-based playwright, director and set designer of the finest caliber.
As for the youthful cast, I similarly applaud their performances which were often so well done that I forgot I was watching a play. It began to feel like I was a silent observer in the real life drama of young adults seeking to find where they can fit in a society that shuns their very existence.
Look out for Nyla Rose in the role of Ariella, Kimberly Gilbert who plays the role of the Center’s director “D,” a character who herself faces difficulties associated with her own gender identification and thespian Clayton Pelham Jr., whose portrayal of former gang-banger Beta, once part of a gay-described group of hooligans who target members of the trans community, is just outstanding.
Mama Darleena in one of her most poignant moments, describes what it’s like as she faces her own mortality as an aging, transgender woman: “I’m faced with the reality that while once everyone was looking at me, now I feel like no one is looking at me — no one sees me.”
Other powerful words from members of the cast include: “Sometimes you gotta kill yourself to survive” and “I just wish there was someone who thought I was enough for them.”
“CHARM” is a play that I highly recommend. Just be sure to bring your handkerchief and to be receptive to the strong possibility that your perspective about America’s transgender community will be challenged, confronted and even changed for the better.
For ticket information, go to mosaictheater.org or call 202-399-7993, ext. 2.