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.