Charm and the Business of Being You

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[dropcap]My[/dropcap] friend is going through a breakup right now. That friend is also acting in Philip Dawkins’ Charm at Celebration Theatre right now. When I asked, he told me it was okay to write about both, joking, “You’re in this too.” What he means is that I’ve been a close witness to the last three months of his relationship. In fact, it was our parallel navigation of long-distance relationships that drew us closer together, as we swapped insights over coffee at this new shop where something is wrong with every order but we keep going back, or over coconut margaritas in a lost bar in a Burbank neighborhood that smells like horses. (It should be said that we also spent significant amounts of time not talking about our love lives at all. We also bonded while braving the shock of seeing an “immersive” play we hadn’t known would be “immersive,” or tucking my roommate into bed as part of an extended bit where we pretend my friend is my roommate’s wayward uncle and I’m her dysfunctional mother.) But when your friend is going through something difficult, you’re very aware of that something — and even when it’s not being explicitly talked about, you know it’s there.

So when I watched my friend onstage this past Friday portraying a totally fictional character, I was thinking about his breakup. It’s no reflection on his skill as an actor that I wove in and out of remembering who he really was, that the person saying those lines was in that soppy, aching heart kind of pain — and for two weeks now his life has been vibrating at that singular breakup frequency, when every experience is suddenly in technicolor and a day doesn’t go by with fewer than fifty epiphanies about what it’s all meant. But — and I know this sounds obvious — if you didn’t know my friend, you wouldn’t know this by watching him.

The only difference between this and the way I watch all other shows is I know for sure what my friend is going through, while I can only assume and invent with everyone else. I’ve grown obsessed with guessing at the private hearts of performers, and what, as a performer myself, I should do about my own private heart when I step onto a stage or in front of a camera. When I was little, I watched performers and imagined that their lives were spectacular, but as an adult, I scan for signs that they’re unhappy or hurting, insecure or jealous, tired or disenchanted, because I know they are — at least some of — those things. My friend in Charm and I have discussed this so many times before, before The Breakup even: that there’s the thing you see in a performance (a ballet pas-de-deux, a rousing musical number in the 11 o’clock hour, a standup set), and there’s the thing you don’t see (unrequited feelings from one dance partner for another? A chorus member’s grief over a lost parent? A comedian’s panic attack on the drive to the club?). It’s a trope, maybe even a cliche: the performer who wears a mask, puts on a show, hides behind a character. But the older I get, and the more aware I become — whether first- or secondhandedly — of the adult menu of sadness and anxiety, the more I feel awestruck by performers who simultaneously convince me of one self and make me wonder about the rest.

Of course, it doesn’t take a stage to make a performance. Enter: a major theme in Charm, which tells the story of Mama Darleena Andrews, a 67-year-old trans woman who teaches charm classes to a group of LGBTQ “youths” at a Chicago community center. The seven pupils range in age from 18 to 33 and represent a colorful spectrum of backgrounds, gender expressions, sexual orientations, racial and ethnic identities. These people are homeless and hungry. They’ve been abused and arrested. They need more than makeup tutorials and etiquette lessons — no one can argue with that. And so much of the support Mama provides to her pupils seems cosmetic, an issue that feeds a conflict between Mama and the youth programs administrator.

Shoniqua Shandai and Lana Houston in "Charm." Photo by Matthew Brian Denman.
Shoniqua Shandai and Lana Houston in “Charm.” Photo by Matthew Brian Denman.

But even as much as we learn or infer about the suffering of the characters in Charm, sometimes it’s hard to tell. It becomes easier, at times, to see the witty insults they hurl at one another and the bravado with which they boast about themselves, or the way they stoically and silently guard their territory, or the seemingly innocent ways they put on makeup and listen to music and dance with abandon — to watch all these behaviors and think, “These kids seem okay.” Despite all the discrimination and aggression they face in the world, most of them seem pretty confident, and maybe that means they’re not hurting.

A couple years ago I started volunteering with an organization that teaches writing to underserved teenage girls, and at our orientation, the non-profit’s director spent what I thought was a disproportionate amount of training time on one subject: “These girls you mentor will seem like they have it together. They’ll joke and tease each other, they’ll brag and show off, they’ll come to school looking beautiful with pretty nails and cool clothes. But,” she added with certainty, because the program screened each of the girls who participated, “each of them is dealing with something truly terrible outside of school.” I listened to her sample stories — that some girls had had multiple pregnancies, incarcerated family members, drug-addicted parents, abusive boyfriends — things that were so foreign in my own adolescence but abundant and familiar in theirs. I didn’t feel I needed a warning to remember their circumstances. I felt sure that lives like theirs would be unmistakably evident.

I was wrong, though, because when I began teaching these girls, I couldn’t always tell who was dealing with what. They weren’t model students or little teenage robots, but the loud ones were goofy and the quiet ones were thoughtful and no one seemed particularly “troubled.” Some of the girls were so charismatic and funny and cool that I would slip into feeling like a teenager, myself — bowled over by these bold personalities, their bouncing joie de vivre, their biting humor. It wasn’t until I would read a girl’s poem about the multiple deaths in her immediate family, or overhear a table of girls discussing someone’s brother who just went to jail, or find out that one girl (one tiny girl, sitting right in front of me) was newly pregnant, that I remembered that speech from orientation day. These girls put on such. A good. Show.

In Charm, the students eventually unveil parts of their interior lives to Mama, and we confirm that she, too, has led an intense and difficult life. But it’s not that Mama is oblivious to the fronts her students put up, or to the tragedies and hardships life has in store for them; rather, it’s her intimate relationship with hardship that bolsters her purpose. In one monologue, Mama says:

Without make-up, how you gonna look fabulous? And we must look Fabulous. You know, the word Fabulous comes from the word Fable. A story. A fantastic story that tells of some creation or becoming. To tell a fable is to make something up. When we make ourselves up, we become Fabulists. We tell the fable of our constant Becoming. Our Truth, all made-up.

The revelation I’m having is not that people are good at hiding their feelings. I know that already, or at least I learn it over and over again. And it’s not that I don’t believe in self-discovery and honest expression. The girls I coached and the fictional youths in Charm come from wildly different contexts from my own and might be desperate to hear they don’t have to be tough, that they can be vulnerable, that they deserve safety and care — all things I take for granted. But the medicine that some people need, I have in excess. I’m constantly encouraged to be vulnerable and open and to say how I feel and create work that’s revealing and personal. I’m constantly asking myself, in my relationships and career and downtime: am I being honest enough? What am I hiding, and why? If I feel bad, am I allowed to pretend I feel good? To whom do I owe the truth, is there such a thing as the whole truth? These concerns intensify into obsessions when I’m auditioning, performing, telling someone about myself, or celebrating in public. I become feverish about digging everything up and exposing it so that I don’t betray my “true self” or accidentally lie to the world or recklessly fool everyone into thinking I’m someone I’m not. In these times, “be yourself” is some of my least favorite advice.

I’m wondering now if those writing program girls felt pressure to put on happy faces for us new teachers, or if maybe what they felt was something more like excitement or relief: to act light-hearted and confident, not to be seen as wounded and disadvantaged. With abundant awareness of my own good fortune and no attempt to compare my heartache to anyone else’s, I’ll say that it’s tiring to tell people who you are all the time, as though there’s only one of you, as though you even know. I think it’s valid to act according to the feeling you want to have, rather than the one you do have. Maybe when you put on a show, you’re not so much hiding as you are carving out somewhere new to stand, away from the grooves of your familiar pain, if only for a little while.

All this talk of the truth and the self and the feelings can sound navel-gazing and cultish, but what I mean to say is: it could be fun to write “the fable of our constant Becoming” rather than keep referencing the self like it’s just some old, already-written dictionary. It might be nice to just be charming sometimes. Oh, and bravo to my friend in Charm, if you’re reading this, you were Fabulous.

NOW PLAYING: CHARM at Celebration Theatre, through October 23.

charm-iconSet in “The Center,” a shelter and safe space for the LGBTQ community in Chicago, Charm explores the complex issue of Gender Identity. Mama Darleena Andrews, a black transgender woman, attempts to share her rules of proper behavior with a youth group that struggles to define themselves across sexual, racial and gender spectrums. Facing conflict with themselves and each other, Mama — with tough love and an unapologetic attitude — uses her unwavering belief in etiquette and decorum to teach her students how to cope with their daily battles with identity, poverty and prejudice.

Hayley Huntley

Hayley Huntley

Hayley Huntley is a writer and actor working in Los Angeles. She holds a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Southern California and has written for @ This Stage since its inaugural summer. She plays recurring characters on Comedy Central's "Review with Forrest MacNeil" and TVLand's "Lopez."