Six years ago Jefferson Mays received an unexpected offer from a playwright friend.
I got a call from Doug Wright in December 2000, saying, -˜Do you want to be in play that hasn’t been written yet?’ the American actor recalls.
I said, -˜Sure, what’s it about?’
He said, -˜It’s about a gay 65-year-old East German transvestite,’ and I just leapt at the opportunity. You can’t say no to that.
Having interviewed the subject in question -“ Berlin identity Charlotte von Mahlsdorf -“ Doug Wright was determined to bring her unique story to the stage.
Born a boy in 1928, von Mahlsdorf survived the Nazi and East German communist regimes as a cross-dressing teenager and adult thanks to her fierce eccentricity.
There’s a story about her being in a bomb shelter in the last days of World War II, Mays says.
The Russians were flooding into the city and the German SS was shooting people who were not in uniform or bearing arms.
They find Charlotte wearing her mother’s coat and a pair of high heels in a bomb shelter with her long blond hair and are just so blown over by her they let her go.
Doug realised that he wanted to dramatise this extraordinary life in some way, and described her as the gay grandmother figure he never had.
The result is I Am My Own Wife , Doug Wright’s one-person play based on his extensive conversations with von Mahlsdorf, who was also an informant for the Stasi, or East German secret police.
The Tony Award-winning show, which opens in Sydney next week, sees Mays portray the protagonist and 30-odd supporting characters with nary a costume change in sight.
It’s all pretty much done in a little black dress and pearls, with a gesture or alteration of the voice to suggest a change of character, Mays says.
I try to focus mainly on Charlotte and her life story.
Part of that story is what Mays calls von Mahlsdorf’s imaginary 19th century Neverland -“ a mansion in East Berlin she restored single-handedly and stacked with memorabilia.
She was an underground celebrity and she ran this gay social centre in an old Weimar cabaret that she removed from its original site to the basement of her house, Mays says.
Since its debut in New York in 2003, I Am My Own Wife has won international acclaim, including in Berlin this year, when Mays performed for people who knew von Mahlsdorf in the museum she founded.
But von Mahlsdorf never saw the play, and her death in 2002 means many questions will remain unanswered.
What sacrifices did she have to make to remain true to herself? That’s what the play’s about, Mays says.
It also does explore the nature of history -“ who writes history, how much of history is made up.
Her Stasi file is reconcilable with the stories that she tells about herself but we’ll never know how much of her life was created.
I Am My Own Wife opens at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, on 26 August. Book on 9250 1777.