Retired nurse Gloria Allen didn’t set out to be the Miss Manners for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in Chicago. While visiting a center that caters to homeless young people in the Windy City six or seven years ago, she saw a need.
“These kids were coming in off the street and cutting up so bad, I couldn’t believe it,” Allen, 70, said by phone. “I thought they could benefit from instruction in manners, etiquette and dress.”
Allen launched a charm school in Chicago’s historic, gay-friendly Boystown neighborhood. The class caught the eye of a Chicago Tribune columnist whose story inspired the artistic director of Northlight Theatre to commission a play — Philip Dawkins’ “Charm,” which premiered last fall in Chicago and opens Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre.
The theater field often is a lagging indicator of cultural changes, but “Charm” truly reflects the zeitgeist. The Twin Cities production is also noteworthy for its cast. Mixed Blood has cast five transgender actors — a fact that may go unremarked in the future but that the theater proudly trumpets today.
“We cast nationally for this show and we’ve built a database for transgender actors since, as you can imagine, they don’t get that much work,” said director Addie Gorlin.
“Charm” is essentially a teacher-student story, like “Stand and Deliver” or “Dead Poets Society.” There’s a tug-of-war in the classroom, with the instructor learning from those she’s trying to teach.
Allen said that sums up her experience.
“Many of the young people get kicked out of their homes just for being who they are,” she said. “They come from horrific situations.”
Some challenged the need for charm lessons. Her response: The class might not eliminate their trauma, but it could help them navigate the world.
“I’ve walked in their shoes, being gay and transgender,” said Allen, who was born in Bowling Green, Ky., and reared in Chicago. “You go out to work or to school, and people in the so-called heterosexual world just hate you. They would throw bottles at you, beat you up and worse. I’ve lost so many friends.”
Playwright Dawkins, who is white and gay, was at first nervous about taking on a story with a black transsexual protagonist in Chicago, a city riven by historic divides. Then he had a phone conversation with Allen, who is called Mama by students and friends alike.
“I knew immediately that this woman is someone I wanted to spend a lot of time with,” he said. “Mama was immediately gracious but more than that, it felt right.”
Dawkins spent six months going to her classes, often twice at week, at Chicago’s Center on Halsted. He was struck by the frequency of homelessness among the young people in the class.
“Those of us who are fed by popular images about what a person experiencing homelessness looks like have no idea,” he said. “It’s as diverse as the rest of society. Some of the participants were going through re-entry into society after coming out of the prison system. Others had been forcibly kicked out of their homes. The struggle to find safe space is never-ending.”
Given their day-to-day-struggles, he said, “the thing that Gloria created sounds on the surface incongruous — an etiquette class for people experiencing homelessness — but it makes sense. Etiquette is about creating space where everyone is invited. When engaged properly, etiquette is the basis of creating a safe, welcoming environment for all.”
Honor and validation
Dawkins said the class discussions he captured in the play were not just about manners, but about creating community, offering life lessons and drawing people out of their sense of isolation.
“Gloria recognizes that it’s not right that this society judges you on appearance, but that you might as well give yourself the benefit of being judged as beautiful on sight,” said Dawkins. “An outfit that might be good for the Pride Parade might not be good for a job interview.”
He also tried to reflect the humor he observed.
“If you’re experiencing homelessness or ill health, what are the things you do have? Humor. Your brain. Your identity. Laughter is therapeutic.”
While the play is fictional, Allen recognizes herself and many of her students in the composite characters. “When I saw the production here in Chicago, it was an out-of-body experience.”
The lesson of the show sticks with her, especially when she encounters rude young people of any stripe.
“They just needed someone to stand up for them, to extend a helping hand and to give them the love they need to be given,” she said. “A good ear means a lot to a person. Just listening is a way of honoring them and validating their lives. Sometimes that means the world.”