Mama Darleena (center) and proteges Ariela, Lady, Victoria, and Jonelle Credit: Michael Brosilow

“You know, I asked him about that. He said, good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn’t know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior.” —Blast From the Past

In the 1999 movie rom-com Blast From the Past, a 35-year-old man named Adam emerges from the ultimate sheltered existence—the fallout shelter he’s shared with his parents since birth—to find himself in late-90s Los Angeles, where only cranks believe in anything and everybody else cultivates a me-first cynicism. Together with some really valuable baseball cards, Adam’s simple, old-fashioned sense of decorum disarms and ultimately wins over the hard-case girl of his dreams, Eve.

Receiving its world premiere now in a very fine Northlight Theatre production at the Steppenwolf Garage, Philip Dawkins‘s based-on-fact Charm tells a remarkably similar story—except that Dawkins’s Adam is a sixtysomething black transsexual who calls herself Mama Darleena, and his Eve a bunch of tough, sexually various street kids who take the charm class Mama teaches at an LGBT community center in Chicago.

Well, OK—those are some big differences. But the basic dynamic is the same.

An artifact from an earlier era, when “trannies” like her stuck close to the margins of the social order, Mama dresses like a church lady who doesn’t mind a little mischief. Her bible is Emily Post’s 1922 tome Etiquette. Her byword, of course, is “charm”—which in her universe designates much more than the crass ability to seduce. “If you follow the rules of charm,” she tells her students, “you will show society that you are comfortable in every situation. And that you know how to make other people feel comfortable as well.”

Note the locution “you will show society.” Mama has absorbed a touch of Stockholm syndrome along with her Emily Post: She aspires to embody the worldview that holds her hostage. Mama doesn’t dress up to subvert gender assumptions or draw attention to illusion. She’s a true believer—a high-heeled version of the “good Negro.”

Obviously, Mama’s way earns her pushback from the motley crew she calls her “babies”—weary, wary, damaged young outcasts who greet one another with comments like, “Lick my clit, you ugly bitch.” Far too anxious to please, Dawkins ultimately deploys them toward a silly, trivial, feel-good ending. But before we arrive at that disappointment, they can be both a hoot and, in B.J. Jones’s staging, a powerful sorrow.

Between his linebacker’s build and Beyonce cosmetology, Armand Fields would generate drama just by standing still. But he goes beyond awesome looks to give an affecting, counterintuitively modest performance as love-starved gay cross-dresser Jonelle. Matthew Sherbach also parlays a striking visual impression (Pee-wee Herman meets Blanche Dubois, if you can picture it) into a strong performance as wispy Lady, a street soul driven mad by an incomplete course of hormone therapy. Monica Orozco is more conventionally the Latina spitfire as post-op transsexual Ariela, but fills the position effectively, while Brittney Love Smith and Awate Serequeberhan endear themselves as compulsive pleaser Victoria and requisite rich kid Logan, respectively.

It’s a pair of the quieter roles, though, that offer the most astonishing results. Julian Parker literally mumbles his way into our consciousness playing Donnie, Victoria’s husband and a man trying to tamp down his secrets. Namir Smallwood’s mysterious Beta, meanwhile, is revealed as nothing less than the emotional heart of the play in an unexpected and harrowing passage.

And Mama? Dexter Zollicoffer plays her like a great old ship streaming into harbor—splendid, if much the worse for wear. His performance is nicely balanced by that of Elizabeth Ledo as D, the community center director whose vision of proper LGBT behavior doesn’t stop much for etiquette.  v