Sticking strictly to facts, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf left this earth in 2002, a bit more than a year before Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife premiered Off-Broadway. A year after that, Wright’s one-person, multi-character drama about the remarkable Charlotte won the Pulitzer Prize. So thanks to an engrossing play about a beguiling and enigmatic character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf comes back to life whenever a theater company decides to present Wright’s play, as Miami’s Zoetic Stage will do beginning this week..
Charlotte was a real person, a strong-featured elderly Berliner with snow-white hair when Wright first met her in 1993. She ran the Gründerzeit Museum out of her restored old home in the Berlin suburbs, a place full of late 19th century furniture, photographs, clocks and memorabilia. But Charlotte was not, in fact, a woman.
Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, for most of her life she wore dresses or modest skirts and blouses, a signature pearl necklace and sensible shoes. She had survived Germany under the Nazis and East Berlin under the Communists. The soft-spoken “tranny granny” was imprisoned at 15 for murdering the father who forced her to join the Hitler Youth, information she readily shared in her memoirs. But she was less forthcoming about revelations that she had spent the Cold War years as an informant for the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police.
Zoetic’s I Am My Own Wife, which previews Thursday and opens Friday, is one of the key arts components of a larger initiative, the Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project. Sponsored by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the project is a three-month effort involving performances, museum exhibitions, symposia and special events, all designed to foster Holocaust education and examine the myriad ways in which prejudice and hate continue to afflict human interaction.
The large-scale initiative takes its title from the contemporary ballet of the same name, a piece created by Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills in 2005 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The company will perform the ballet, which tracks the life of Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren, Nov. 3-4 in the Arsht’s Ziff Ballet Opera House.
Scott Shiller, the Arsht’s executive vice president, feels that as the last generation of Holocaust survivors dies, the arts can play a vital role in sharing its stories.
“I believe the strongest way to preserve their lessons and experiences is to document them through art,” says Shiller. “The performing arts are such a powerful tool …we have to experience these things to remember why they are relevant to us and why they will be to future generations ... as [survivor] Elie Wiesel said, ‘The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.’ ”
Wright, who is currently working on the Broadway-bound musical Hands on a Hardbody (about a Texas contest to win a truck) with lyricist Amanda Green and Phish lead singer Trey Anastasio, agrees that understanding lives like Charlotte’s is vital.
“These stories need to be told, and told repeatedly,” he says by phone from New York. “As a culture, we no longer agree on many basic facts. This is a potent reminder that it’s often the marginal people in history, some of them eccentric, who have first-hand knowledge of how repression feels.”