Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was many things, but first and foremost, she was a survivor. She was an antiquarian who saw the value in everyday objects and turned her collection into a museum. She was an independent spirit who defied laws in order to give gays and lesbians a secret place to gather. She was a transgender person living openly under Nazi and Communist governments that persecuted and executed anyone who didn’t fit their regime’s uniformity.
And Charlotte is the subject of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, I Am My Own Wife, which will open this week at Miami’s Zoetic Stage.
Stuart Meltzer, artistic director of Zoetic Stage as well as the director of I Am My Own Wife, had not seen a production of it when he decided to open Zoetic Stage’s second full season with Charlotte’s story.
“I was looking for the perfect one-person play to do that had a history and had a story to tell,” says Meltzer. “I read the play and fell in love with the character of Charlotte and realized why the play had been so decorated and beloved.”
Meltzer quickly realized that Tom Wahl was the only actor he could see playing the role.
Wahl, a popular South Florida-based actor who has appeared in productions all over the country, had never done a one-person show before I Am My Own Wife. While the show demands he portray dozens of characters, Charlotte is the star.
“Charlotte is so complex,” says Wahl. “She had an extremely challenging life and lived it on her own terms. But while she did have a very challenging life, she was no saint either. We want to show all of her, warts and all.”
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was born Lothar Berfelde in Berlin-Mahlsdorf in 1928. From an early age, Lothar felt more like a girl and was drawn to more feminine clothing. Lothar’s father was a Nazi party leader in their town and forced his son to join the Hitler Youth. As a teenager, Charlotte killed her father in self-defense, and spent some time in juvenile detention. After the war, she worked clearing out the homes of those who had been deported of fled to the west, thus starting her collection of everyday items. Charlotte was forced to live under Communist rule in East Berlin, but lived openly as a woman. She opened her home to gays and lesbians, so they could meet and be together.
“I think the mere fact of her survival is unbelievable,” says Wahl. “To survive the Nazis and the Communists living as an openly gay transvestite? You wonder how is that possible? How did she do it?”
I Am My Own Wife fits in with a program sponsored by the Arsht Center called Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project. The program is a three-month, county-wide human rights collaboration that will focus attention on the work that is being done in Miami-Dade County toward the protection of human rights against bigotry and hate. Through November 4, the Arsht Center will convene community organizations, in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, in a county-wide calendar of performances, activities, education programs and public forums.
Meltzer believes that the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is important to tell, especially during an election year.
“If we look at what the title means, that this woman had only herself---her true self---for survival, I think the title can ignite a pride throughout the community,” Meltzer says.
“We are a community that has many people who would like us to die and remain in the past. We are our own wives and brothers and sisters, we must find that strength together and change the direction of water. If we all don't care about our future as American citizens, then nobody succeeds.”
I Am My Own Wife runs Oct. 4-21 at the Carnival Studio Theatre at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 305-949-6722 or visit ArshCenter.org. For more information on Zoetic Stage’s upcoming season, visit ZoeticStage.com.