Charm cuts to the heart of gender issues at Mosaic Theater (review)

Mosaic Theater Company sharpens its reputation for cutting edge theatre yet again with Charm by Philip Dawkins, now getting national attention and acclaim for spotlighting gender fluidity issues and showcasing transgender and transsexual performers.

Even the term “trans” is becoming passé as a multitude of issues emerge on the scene.  Charm helps reveal what’s going on and what’s at stake by cutting through to the heart of what matters—people caring for and accepting each other no matter what the differences.

B’Ellana Duquesne as Mama and Kimberly Gilbert as D in Charm at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Mama Darleena Andrews, based on an actual Chicagoan, is determined to bring hope, dignity and etiquette to homeless youths at a recreational center.  As if their lack of basic provisions were not enough, these young people are also on the social outskirts because of their unconventional gender identification –or lack of such.  The characters reveal that there are large swatches between and beyond the gay-straight continuum as they struggle through life and their own sense of self-acceptance and identity.  Gone are the “Good Ole Days” of Archie Bunker’s “when girls were girls and men were men” approach to gender and sexuality mentality.

At the top of the show, B’Ellana Duquesne as Darleena Andrews takes center stage, tall and impeccably dressed, addressing the audience like we’re all in the Rec Center program, making sure that pants are pulled up and that ladies are properly attired. Kimberly Gilbert as gender-neutral Center Director “D” then enters and tries to be reassuring and supportive to Darleena for what will surely be an onslaught when the attendees come in , but nothing prepares us for the rambunctious bedlam that follows as the bawdy bunch grab their space.  How in the world will Darleena bring any sense of order and decorum to this mess?

B’Ellana Duquesne as Mama (center) and members of the ensemble of Charm at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. (Photo: Stan Barouh)

That’s the journey for Charm as we relish each moment of being in Duquesne’s presence watching her every move and gesture in her tailored dress and sweet T-Strap pumps as she convinces these neglected “babies” that they are gorgeous “ladies and gentlemen.”

She slowly nudges her way into their hearts with her caressing tones, poise and demeanor, and shows that a person who has transitioned can live, be accepted, and can care for others.  If Mom can make it so can I — they seem to feel.  As she embraces them, truly looks at each one, and shares that the family community has let them down and that they are beautiful, precious, and her “babies,” it’s a stunning moment.  Jaws drop on and off stage as we realize that this could very well be the very first and only time these young people have felt unconditional love. The impact is immediate, and sure, maybe a little schmaltzy but in this era of stringent put downs for anything that’s different, it’s a soothing balm; a loving gaze is better than a hateful stare.

Emily Post is Mama’s model of the utmost importance of civility.  We learn later that Andrews clung to rules of etiquette for survival in her own early struggles.  She imparts that knowing proper dinner place settings is important even when getting a meal is not a given.  It’s part of her inside bastion of strength along with her own version of her reality.  Her “truth” is as fluid as gender identification as she tries to relay a sense of hope and possibility to these imperiled youths trying to survive to the next meal. While her creative reality gives her solace and support, it’s confusing and unrealistic to the administrators and to one of the attendees aching for her attention who sets up the conflict to be resolved.

B’Ellana Duquesne plays Mama, with a sweet and mild touch, that might be a little too one-layered and mild mannered for some but her representational value is priceless. As noted in the program and the media, the change in casting to Duquesne came just before rehearsal started. Having a performer in the role who is actually living his/her truth adds to the poignancy of the message and is a valuable testament to the power of theater to show and heal.

Justin Weaks as Jonelle (center). L to R: Joe Brack as Lady, Jade Jones as Victoria, Nyla Rose as Ariella, Clayton Pelham Jr. as Beta, and Samy El-Noury as Logan in Charm at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Kimberly Gilbert as D is a mainstay having just come off of Angels in America and offers yet another stellar performance with an intense earnestness that permeates her scenes. Another stand out is Nyla Rose as Ariella who is tender in her affection for Mama, and is obviously in severe emotional need for attention, even while she can rock the Hell outta some kinky boots.  Joe Brack as Lady is rock solid as always portraying a youth so wound up and confused with hormonal and societal anxiety she’s like a powder keg ready to blow.

Justin Weaks beautifully demonstrates Jonelle’s spectrum of gender fluidity.  Clayton Pelham Jr. as Beta is up-and-coming, having worked throughout the metro area and portrays the thuggish Beta, who ultimately reveals the soft undertones of private hurt and devastating pain. Pelham plummets the depth of his anguish with “Moonlight” intensity.  Jade Jones and Louis E. Davis round out the talented ensemble, while Samy El-Noury brings a playful spirit coming in to gawk at the weird gathering and ends up being swept up into the family, all powerfully directed by Natsu Onoda Power.

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closes January 29, 2017
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Costume designer Frank Labovitz shows stylish transition and flair between the gritty urban look in the first scene that tones down “appropriately” reflecting the impact of kindness, and attentive care at the end. The sound and light combo team Roc Lee and Max Doolittle bring an otherworldly shadow to some of the near-dream sequences, bust a move blasts, and sudden pitch-black scene transitions accompanied by a thunderous accent.

This is an important piece that’s arrives right on time and is getting rightful acclaim and attention. The issues are even reflected in the National Geographic current feature on gender worldwide.  It’s time, it’s here and real, and schmaltzy or not, it’s charming.


Charm by Philip Dawkins.  Directed by Natsu Onodo Power.  Cast: B’Ellana Duquesne, Kimberly Gilbert, Justin Weaks,  Nyla Rose, Louis E Davis,  Jade Jones (role to be played by Tamieka Chavis starting January 18),  Clayton Pelham Jr., Joe Brack, Samy El-Noury . Associate director: Kenyatta Rogers. Set design: Daniel Conway . Lighting design: Max Doolittle. Costume design:   Frank Labovitz.  Sound design: Roc Lee. Stage manager: James Holbrook IV . Produced by Mosaic Theater of DC . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.





Debbie Minter Jackson About Debbie Minter Jackson

Debbie Minter Jackson is a writer and has performed in musical theater for decades. Originally from Chicago, she has hit stages throughout the Midwest and the Washington, D.C. area including the Kennedy Center in productions with the legendary Mike Malone. Her scripts have been commissioned and produced by the old Source Theater and festivals in New York. She is a member of the play reading and discussion group Footlights and the Black Women Playwrights’ Group. By day she happily works in a federal public health agency as a Senior Program Analyst and is in blissful partnership with her Bill.



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