Back in 2011 the Reader ran a feature titled “Grit & Glitter,” about Chicago’s underground ballroom scene: a gay, black subculture populated by “male-identified men, drag queens, transgender folks, and born women (whom ballroom participants call ‘allies’).” Though its social life revolves around late-night vogueing competitions, the scene’s real foundation is a network of “houses” (as in fashion houses) led by older members of the community, who are expected to mentor their younger peers. One such house runs the School of Opulence, which offers workshops not only in runway style but in skills the LGBTQ students are going to need to deal gracefully with a world that sometimes still doesn’t want to be their friend.
I thought of “Grit & Glitter” when I heard about Charm, Philip Dawkins’s new play concerning an etiquette class taught by a 67-year-old transgendered African-American woman in “six-inch gator-skin heels,” who’s taken it upon herself to bring some couth (and, one supposes, wisdom) to a diverse bunch of Boystown street folk. Inspired by the real-life adventures of Miss Gloria Allen, who taught just such a class at the Center on Halsted, Charm will be presented by Northlight Theatre at the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage in October.
The subject matter may seem like a wild departure for Northlight, whose 2015-’16 season includes a revival of You Can’t Take It With You and a comedy teaming George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky. But Dawkins has a gift for ingratiating whimsy that should make Charm charming at the very least.
10/14-11/8: Wed-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Steppenwolf Theatre, Merle Reskin Garage Theatre,1624 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650,steppenwolf.org, $20-$40, $15 students.