Shades of Gray

Special Features   Shades of Gray In I Am My Own Wife, Jefferson Mays essays a less than perfect hero's struggle to survive
Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife
Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife Photo by Joan Marcus

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In a small cabin beside a babbling brook in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, playwright Doug Wright, director Moisés Kaufman and actor Jefferson Mays sat staring at one another, wondering what to do next. This was at Sundance in the summer of 2000. Before them lay a table piled high with pages upon pages of transcripts of interviews Wright had conducted eight years earlier with a sixtysomething-year-old man in Mahlsdorf, Germany, who — outwitting Hitler, outwitting Stalin — had spent his entire adult life as a woman who called herself Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

"And then," says Jefferson Mays, "Moisés had an inspiration. He did what he does with his own Tectonic theatre company. He said: 'Let us all go home, and come in tomorrow with some little five-minute composition or other.' The next morning, Moisés came in with his composition. He stripped down to his boxer shorts, put on a black dress, and stood there admiring himself.

"Doug came in, and he had this gay Berlin guide book — here, I'll show you," says Mays. He goes over to a shelf — we are in his dressing room at the Lyceum — and brings back the very book in question, the one from which, onstage, he will read an entry about a Berlin bookstore that stocked "everything ever written by homophiles, nancies, pansies, sissies, trannies, sodomites, sapphists, fruitcakes, homos, faggots, lezzies, dykes, queens, queers, gender-benders and friends of Dorothy." In short, a bookstore cheerfully frequented by Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

"And I stayed up all night," the actor says, "fabricating tiny little turn-of-century Grunderzeit furniture out of cardboard and glue, using nail scissors. I put the pieces in a shoebox and carried them as if onstage. Well, all three of the above 'compositions' have, as you've seen, found their way into the show." The show is I Am My Own Wife, which emerged from that cabin in the mountains to a three-week, first-act gestation at Sundance Theatre Laboratory, a workshop at La Jolla Playhouse, a completion at Chicago's About Face Theatre, a triumph Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, and now a crack at the big time — Broadway itself — here at the Lyceum. Its one and only actor, as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde) and 35 other people, is the extraordinary Jefferson Mays.

One of those 35 characters is none other than Doug Wright, playmaker, who weaves in and out of I Am My Own Wife as both narrator and participant. At one point the Wright persona quotes from a letter he, in fact, sent to Charlotte in 1992, after first being taken to visit her in her incredible "museum" of old phonographs, photographs, furniture. "I must confess," he writes her, "I was no less impressed by the mere fact of your survival. I grew up gay in the Bible Belt; I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Third Reich. The Nazis and then the Communists! It seems to me, you're an impossibility. You shouldn't even exist." She gives him the go-ahead to write this play.

"One of the things that interested me about My Own Wife," says director Kaufman, "is: What is history? And how does it get reported? This play also poses the question: What is heroism? And what if our heroes" — i.e., Charlotte von Mahlsdorf saving her skin as an informer to the Stasi, the East German secret police — "turn out to be less than perfect?" Suddenly one hears, from wherever a man named Brecht is buried in East Germany, the ghostly injunction: "Unhappy the land that needs a hero."

"My ambivalence about the Stasi question," says Wright, "is what kept me blocked from writing this play for eight years. For some reason, Charlotte had let me look at her files. I'd always thought she was informed upon. To my shock, I found it was the other way round. When a German reporter broke the story a couple of years ago, I felt I no longer needed to keep the secret."

Doug Wright grew up gay in Dallas, Moisés Kaufman grew up gay in Venezuela. (The third member of the triumvirate is married to a young woman named Susan Lyons.) Though Wright's parents have, he says, always been loving and supportive, he is also cognizant that "most homosexual men and women are raised by heterosexual parents, so you have to seek out other voices to teach you how to live in this world." In Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Wright felt he was meeting "a parent I'd never had," somebody who could "unequivocally" teach him how to navigate between and amongst the perils of this world.

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