Gay American playwright Doug Wright visited Berlin’s famous elderly transvestite, Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, just after the Wall came down.
I grew up gay in the Bible Belt, he told her, but how did you survive the Third Reich?
An effeminate gay, and an eccentric collector of history, clocks and furniture, Charlotte somehow survived not just the Nazis but also decades of East German communism. Wright’s adoration of her and her preservation of a queer history reaching back a century are central to his play.
Stasi files revealed in the 90s that Charlotte was, like so many East Germans, a spy for the secret police, but Wright’s play barely acknowledges this moral erosion of his queer hero. He’s just aghast that she purchased and preserved in her own basement a fully functional gay bar from the Weimar days of Marlene Dietrich and Bertolt Brecht. She is left unchallenged to tell her well-polished anecdotes, beginning from when she was a girly boy of 16 but boy enough to bash her father to death.
Later under the communists her bar downstairs and sex rooms upstairs become a happy haven for homosexuals -“ at least for those she didn’t dob in to the Stasi.
A coquette as well, Charlotte had many sides and Jefferson Mays plays her with a beguiling self-possession. Mays’s skill extends to also playing the adoring writer, who features in his own play, and some 30 other quick characters.
Luckily Mays is supported by a beautiful succinct and witty script from Wright. Actor and writer have been showered with just about every available theatre award in North America.
In simple black dress and scarf, Mays performs on a set with just a vintage phonograph, evoking an historic living room. Behind in the shadows is a wall of old furniture, clocks and lamps: a storehouse of domestic memories and history, but in this case it’s a museum of queer memories.
Charlotte may be a heroic storyteller but curiously we don’t glimpse much of her inner being, as either a boy or girl. She is left unrevealed as a tarty humanitarian, a queer mouthpiece of her times, the hero of an American writer desperate to find his own gay history. And that’s the conundrum of his own creation.
For a queer audience, whether you’re looking for your history or not, it’s a must see.
I Am My Own Wife is at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre until 30 September.