Chicago-based playwright Phillip Dawkins is mounting a one-man invasion of Twin Cities theater. This season he’ll see three scripts produced: Charm at Mixed Blood Theater, Le Switch (The Jungle) and Dr. Seuss’ THE SNEETCHES (Children’s Theatre Company). “I’ve had a crush on St. Paul/Minneapolis for a long time!” he spiritedly states.
Charm relates the courageously unstinting, ingenious altruism of Mama Gloria Allen, whose real-life volunteer work at the Center on Halsted in Chicago has enhanced and empowered hard-pressed, non-heterosexual lives through the unlikely device of common courtesy — plain, simple, good manners.
Dawkins represents her as African American transwoman Mama Darleena, whose etiquette students, including a suburban teen, are troubled by issues of sexuality, race, gender identity and social strata. It bears noting that this production is staged in the city where CeCe McDonald, also trans, came to national attention, imprisoned for acting in self-defense against homophobic racism.
Dawkins (PD) reflects, “I feel like if what happened to CeCe happened today, there would be an instant protest, demonstration, outcry, and that Black Lives Matter would take up the call. That’s what I want to believe anyway.”
Dawkins has produced at, among other prestigious houses, Victory Gardens Theater and Steppenwolf Garage. He has won Joseph Jefferson Awards for Miss Marx: Or the Involuntary Side Effect of Living, The Homosexuals and Failure: A Love Story. He spoke with MSR by email regarding his craft.
MSR: Why are you, a White playwright, writing about a Black protagonist?
PD: I asked myself the same question, and initially turned the project down, suggesting other colleagues of mine to write the piece. BJ Jones, who commissioned the piece [for Northlight Theatre] encouraged me to think on it some more and to meet with Mama Gloria before making that decision. He was familiar with my work and voice, thought that my spirit and dedication both to Chicago stories and depiction of hard-won pockets matched Mama’s drive and compassion.
So, I met with Gloria, and was instantly in love with her. Conversation [flowed]. She was so ready to tell her story and get it out there. We kept meeting. I began attending her Charm classes, and asked, “Mama, how would you feel about me, a White cisgender male, writing your voice?” She said, “I don’t care, just make me sound fabulous.”
MSR: How did Charm come to Mixed Blood? Is it particularly significant to have the play there?
PD: Jack [Reuler] had heard about the production in Chicago and actually sent [director] Addie Gorlin to see the show in Chicago and sort of scope it out. They must have liked what they saw. It means a ton that Mixed Blood is doing my work, and especially this play. [They] lead the pack when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
I’m very impressed with how they put their money where their heart is. I think and hope that we’ll look back years from now and realize Mixed Blood set the standard for what eventually will be standard operating practices in the American Theatre.
MSR: Anything you want to add?
PD: What I found with Mama and [her] group was actually a hunger to tell their story to someone, anyone, who would listen and listen honestly. So few people even see the people in their world who are experiencing homelessness and/or abuse, and if their stories aren’t getting out there, it’s not because they’re not screaming their stories, it’s because so few people listen to them.
I came with no agenda or anything to prove. I just sat in that classroom for six months with ears and mind as open as possible, and I listened. I feel like 98 percent of my work on this project was just listening. But, I knew it wouldn’t be wasted time. Hell, I made a great friend in Mama, and if that was [all] that came of it? Worth it.
Philip Dawkins’ Charm closes out Mixed Blood Theatre’s 40th season. The show runs April 22 through May 8 at Mixed Blood Theatre (www.mixedblood.com), 1501 South 4th Street on the West Bank in Minneapolis. Box office: (612) 338-6131.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.
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