Over the weekend, I went to see I Am My Own Wife, a theatre production by Peel the Limelight.
The Pulitzer prize-winning play tells the true life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a trans woman and German queer icon who survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes.
Who was Charlotte van Mahlsdorf?
Born as Lothar Berfelde, Charlotte suffered a difficult childhood, to say the least.
As a child, her lesbian aunt discovered her wearing women’s clothes. She told Charlotte, “did you know that nature has dared to play a joke on us? You should’ve been born a girl, and I should’ve been a man!”
Charlotte later began living openly as a ‘transvestiten’.
As well as struggling with her identity, she also suffered at the hands of her abusive father, who was a member of the Nazi party. After being forced at gunpoint to choose between him and her mother, she bludgeoned her father to death in self defense. As a result, she was sentenced to four years detention as an ‘antisocial juvenile delinquent’. However, her sentence was cut short due to the fall of the Nazis.
Upon her release, she embraced her love of antiques by saving furniture items from houses that had been bombed or abandoned. Each one was added to her collection at her home, which evolved into the Gründerzeit Museum.
That museum also became the unlikely location of a secret LGBTQ haven and party hotspot. This came about when a gay bar was set to be shut down and demolished by the Communists, and Charlotte stepped in. She purchased the furnishings and reconstructed the bar in its entirety in her basement.
“There was over the bar, an attic. When a boy or girl met a man and wanted to go upstairs, they could. Two men, two girls, a boy and a girl? It did not matter.”
-Charlotte van Mahlsdorf
Charlotte’s dedication to preserving history was rewarded with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. She was also revered as Germany’s ‘tranny granny’, and became an icon for the LGBTQ community. However, she also faced public condemnation after it was revealed that she was an informant for the Stasi police during the Cold War.
Sounds confusing, right? So much went on in Charlotte’s life that it’s hard to get your head around. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but in I Am My Own Wife, Charlotte’s story became clear.
James Laver as Charlotte, et al.
In Peel the Limelight’s production, Charlotte is played by James Laver. In fact, everyone else is, too.
It’s a one-man show, in which James brings a total of 35 characters to life. This includes family members, Stasi officers, neo-Nazis, several journalists from different countries, and Doug Wright, the playwright himself.
It’s amazing to see James transition between these characters, seamlessly switching through accents, languages and mannerisms. How he memorized all that dialogue, let alone execute it all so well, is beyond me.
When asked his opinion on why the play was written in this format, James concluded that it repeatedly forces the actor to adapt and become something they’re not, just as society attempted to force Charlotte to be something that she wasn’t. I asked James about what the role meant to him. I met James shortly after I moved to Bangkok. In fact, he interviewed me for the English teaching job I held for the last six years. This was my first time watching him perform, and I came away really impressed.
Charlotte’s life was complex, mysterious, and with no shortage of hardships. Despite this, there were lots of funny moments that evoked laughter from the audience. Through it all, it seems that Charlotte had a great sense of humour.
If you want to see the play for yourself, you still have a chance. I Am My Own Wife is showing every Friday and Saturday of May at the Peel the Limelight Theatre in central Bangkok. Tickets are 700B.
If you have time, stick around for the Q&A after the show is over. When I was there, James and director Jaime Zúñiga revealed some secrets that took me by surprise, showing just how many levels there were to the production.