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.”
Though Charlotte von Mahlsdorf wasn’t Jewish and never spent time in a concentration camp (she did serve time in the Youth Penitentiary at Tegel for patricide), she was profoundly a survivor. And as a transvestite, she belonged to another group targeted by the Nazis.
Consider this telling speech from I Am My Own Wife: “…the last days of the world war were the most dangerous time for me because I refused to carry a weapon or to wear a uniform. Instead, I had my hair long and blond and my mother’s coat, and the shoes of a girl. And so I was — in Germany we say ‘ friewild.’ Like the Jews, we were wild game.”
For Zoetic’s artistic director, Stuart Meltzer, who hadn’t seen the play when it was done in New York or the 2006 production at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, reading Wright’s script was deeply moving.
“It’s beguiling and unbelievably heartbreaking. It’s a tale from gay and lesbian history,” he says. “Charlotte didn’t just run a museum. She is a museum.”
Like Shiller, who says, “The purpose of this project is not to answer any of these questions; it’s to raise the questions and get as many ideas for solutions as possible,” Meltzer hopes that the facts and facets of what he calls “a truly astounding story” will inspire conversation..
“These issues haven’t faded yet,” he says. “I want people to leave the theater talking about the play, about her, about the history and her experiences.”
The director sees Charlotte’s story as one that can resonate in diverse South Florida, a place that is home to people who have survived World War II, Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, Argentina’s dirty war and so many other conflicts.
“It’s really important to me to have a play that reflects the struggle for human rights,” Meltzer says. “As I was doing my research, I went online and looked at all the Nazi symbols, the ways they classified human beings. That reminds me of our current times. In America 2012, people who are gay or part of a certain religious group, those people are sometimes vilified.”
Actor Tom Wahl is the entire cast of Zoetic’s I Am My Own Wife. He’ll portray Charlotte, of course, but he also plays a host of other characters: playwright Wright, Charlotte’s brutal father, her lesbian aunt, Nazis, a Stasi agent, a gay man, an American soldier and more. All told, Wahl has to play 35 characters with different accents, distinct voices and varying physical attributes.
“It’s going to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done — by far,” says the Carbonell Award-winning actor.
Wahl arrived at rehearsals with the entire 80-page script memorized — “I cannot imagine getting the script the first day of rehearsal,” he says — and he has turned to many of the 21st century actor’s tools to bring his Charlotte to life. He watched German TV interviews with the real Charlotte on YouTube, absorbing her voice and physicality. In the play, Charlotte has a German accent, and certain German words and phrases are part of her dialogue. Wahl doesn’t speak German, but he has been culling grammar and pronunciation information from the Internet as well as listening to German tapes and CDs. Mostly, as he has been preparing to walk in Charlotte’s shoes (Wahl wears a size 11), he has been memorizing the play, learning about Charlotte and studying the repressive, judgmental worlds that she endured.
“It’s such a great story. You just don’t know who she really is. She’s such an enigma,” Wahl says. “I see Charlotte as a bit of an opportunist. She did what she had to do to survive.”
Losing Charlotte before his play premiered, Wright says, did affect his writing..
“I knew that, to do full justice to her, I would have to write about some things she might not have appreciated. It was a profound personal loss when she died, but a certain writer’s liberation,” he says. “I was completely haunted by her and loved her, but her truth was a very complicated one.”
Wright viewed Charlotte as “the kind of role model I’d been denied until my early 30s,” but he laughs as he adds, “I know I was one of a horde of gay men who came to her saying, ‘Teach me how you navigated this extraordinarily difficult path.’ ”
She did, and in exchange, Wright ensured that a singular figure would live on in I Am My Own Wife. And the worldwide success of the play did one more thing: It moved the cultural ministry in Berlin to give a 1.5 million euro grant so that Charlotte’s beloved Gründerzeit Museum would live on as well.