Submitted by Rebekah Finn for Harlequin Productions
Have you ever seen one actor give voice to over 35 distinct characters in the span of just 90 short minutes? This month at Harlequin Productions, you have the opportunity to experience just that in the one man show I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, starring Seattle theater artist Corey D. McDaniel.
“This is original storytelling,” McDaniel points out. “The only difference between this and a campfire 500 years ago is that we’ve got some fancy lights and some set pieces. This is storytelling in its purest form.”
When he sat down with us to talk about the show, he was in the midst of working hard to figure out how to portray all 36 different characters with utmost clarity. “In early rehearsals, we were getting confused. Sometimes it’s like, ‘who said that?!’ Our goal in rehearsing is to clarify when each character is newly present and then gone.”
“It is a lot of fun for the audience to watch one actor have a conversation with three people,” adds director Aaron Lamb.
As well as being humorous and entertaining, I Am My Own Wife touches on some broad themes that are relevant to any human being, no matter their time in history. The central character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, was a transgender person who lived through both the Nazi and Communist occupations in Berlin. As a gay man, von Mahlsdorf would have been targeted by Nazis during the Holocaust. In 1968, homosexuality was officially decriminalized in East Berlin, but the environment did not immediately improve. Attempts to create a public LGBT community were often thwarted by the G.D.R. government and the SED party. The play is a portrayal of von Mahlsdorf’s survival and perseverance through those oppressive societies.
In the early 1990s, playwright Doug Wright became enthralled with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (Lothar Berfelde) who was a collector and museum curator in the eastern Berlin district of Mahlsdorf.
“He was tipped off to her existence by a friend of his who lived in Germany. So he went over and toured her museum and met her, and he was enchanted enough that he wanted to continue researching her and getting to know her,” explains Lamb.
“So he spent a couple of years visiting her and spending time in Germany, and the result is a somewhat difficult to curate piece of theater, for reasons that will be explained in the play.” Their acquaintance and the stories she told him about her life became the basis of Wright’s play, which went on to win numerous awards in 2004, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
As he began researching the role, McDaniel started seeing the parallels between the historical context and today’s social environment: “I was amazed at how little I actually knew about the transition from Nazi Germany to Communist Germany. The parallels of what was being said by the politicians in power are very, very relevant right now. It’s frightening how relevant it is and how quickly one of the most advanced civilizations on the planet became one of the most repressed and destructive civilizations on the planet. And also, it’s a powerful experience to understand more deeply why my life is as blessed as it is today, because of the freedoms that were not allowed not that long ago.”
Because of the play’s relevance to LGBTQA+ conversations, the production has attracted the attention of two major funders who are sponsoring the show. Firstly, the show is supported, in part, by a grant from ArtsWA (The Washington State Arts Commission). Part of ArtsWA’s values state that the arts are a catalyst for inclusiveness, social equity, and racial justice. The other major funder, The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation, expresses similar values at billerfamilyfoundation.org: “We endeavor to support artistic content that promotes important conversations around timely social issues.”
A major component of the grant agreement with The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation is a community forum, featuring a panel of community speakers related to some of the themes of the play. This discussion will be held on February 4 at 5:00 p.m., and will be open to audience members from any of the I Am My Own Wife performances.
Part of the beauty of this play, and what it contributes to conversations about transgender individuals, is how it portrays Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as a regular human being at the end of the day, just like the rest of us.
“Even if as individuals, the audience may not think they feel a kinship with this character, they will,” reflects Lamb. “You can’t help but feel that kinship; she’s so human.”
McDaniel agrees: “Her story is actually about so many other things than her being a transvestite. That’s such a small percentage of what she was about. She’s about all of these incredible pieces of furniture and history and music and all of these things that saved her soul because of who she was, living in such a repressive environment.”
If any of you, like me, have looked at recent news headlines and felt an overpowering need for a prescription strength dose of hope and optimism, then this 90-minute play may be just what the doctor ordered. I’ll let director Aaron Lamb have the final word on why Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s story is so important to share with the community:
“As a collector, she’s collecting pieces of the past of a society that’s really difficult for her. She just sees beauty in the world, and she keeps it. That’s her way of coping with understanding the world around her. She’s just such a positive force. It’s amazing to see somebody that positive.”
To see this beautiful story of an amazing human soul, plus have access to the community forum, buy your tickets online now at harlequinproductions.org, or contact the box office for more information: 360-786-0151.