I Am My Own Wife

by Beth Dugan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 15, 2016

Scott Duff, Matt Holzfeind, Delia Kropp and Ninos Baba
Scott Duff, Matt Holzfeind, Delia Kropp and Ninos Baba  

"I Am My Own Wife" is the compelling and unsettlingly prescient story of Eastern Berlin-born self-proclaimed transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf written by Douglas Wright.

Von Mahlsdorf, nee Lothar Berfelde came to age during the fall of the Third Reich and then lived in communist East Berlin under the watchful and interfering eye of the Stasi secret police. Based on von Mahlsdorf's real life story, "I Am My Own Wife" is usually performed as a solo play. About Face Theater's version stars the incomparable Delia Kropp as Charlotte, with three actors playing the other, minor characters.

Watching this play at the end of one of the most turbulent and fraught weeks in recent American history was extremely moving. The parallels that have been drawn, easily and without much effort, between the ideas President-elect Trump has been touting and the Nazi and communist regimes were starkly in evidence in Charlotte's story.

Other than the harrowing details of her everyday survival, one of her big claims to fame was her Gründerzeit Museum; a collection of household items of antique and historical significance with special attention for the collection of gramophones and other antique musical devices she collected. She also, famously, moved the bar and beer machine from a gay club slated to be closed down by the Stasi into the basement of her museum where she held parties and gatherings for East Berlin's artistic, gay and cinematic circles.

The play is a story in a story. In the play, American playwright Douglas Wright is interviewing and writing a play about East Berlin icon Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and she tells her story to Wright while he is writing the play. Wright, who won a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for "I Am My Own Wife" in 2003, inserts himself and his own fears, financial drama, struggles with learning German and ongoing relationship with his subject into the play. It is a brilliant feat because it allows him to go back and forth in Charlotte's timeline, letting her tell her story at her pace, while still keeping everything grounded in the here and now and the intensity of their conversations.

It seems that Charlotte was not the perfect crusader for gay rights in communist East Berlin as she was believed to be. She whispered the names of some of her friends, fellow antiquities dealers, and acquaintances into the ear of the Stasi. They were taken away, and she was not.

But it is so obvious that this is how one survives an unholy regime where one of every three people was an informant, and the wrong move could and would get you disappeared or killed. And as America stands on the precipice, clutching at ideas like making Muslim American's register with the government or complete uncertainty as to the political and social fate of our transgendered citizens, it is easy to say, "I would never..." or "I'm an ally!"

But when push came to shove in East Berlin, mostly what people, including Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, tried to do was survive. Better to not be in a place where we need to test our moral fortitude in this way, than to find out, like most of humanity, that we too are lacking.

Delia Kropp and her co-stars along with director Andrew Volkoff achieved something special here. This work is both completely in-tune with our current political climate while instilling both sadness and hope in the audience. Charlotte's perfectly human story is not so much an inspiration, as a reclamation of the banality of evil we are capable of and the pure unmitigated joy we can find in the darkest of places.

"I Am My Own Wife" runs through December 10 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont, Chicago IL 60657. For tickets or information, call 773-975-8150 or visit theaterwit.org

Beth is a freelance writer living and working in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago Collection Magazine, Ducts.org, and many other places. She fears the suburbs and mayonnaise. You can read more about her work at http://www.bethdugan.com/