Should students be finally getting the chance to learn about LGBTQ history in schools, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf should be among the public figures given their due in the curriculum. A transgender woman who killed her Nazi father and survived the Third Reich’s reign while living in Berlin, von Mahlsdorf’s story of being sent to a psychiatric institution and then transitioning in the wake of the Holocaust is nothing short of heroic.
von Mahlsdorf told her story in her memoir I Am My Own Wife, which was then been turned into a Tony and Pulitzer-winning stage production of the same name. Gay playwright Doug Wright penned the script as a one-person show, with Jefferson Mays portraying every character (including von Mahlsdorf) in the Broadway play in 2003. Mays won several awards for his work (among them the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play), but 15 years later, trans visibility and the discussion surrounding who should be portraying trans roles on the screen also extends to the stage. Yet so far, the role has been almost exclusively portrayed by cis men.
Tonight, director Danny Gordon will lead an ensemble of trans and gender nonconforming actors in a re-imagined reading of I Am My Own Wife at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Gordon produced the project alongside actor/writer Jacob Tobia, who got involved early on after reading the play for the first time.
“I read it and I was just like ‘Holy shit!’ Like how have I never heard of this play before?” Tobia tells INTO. But, Tobia notes, they were 12 at the time, andvon Mahlsdorf’s story deserves to be heard and seen by a new generation. Gordon’s wanting to bring in a trans cast instead of a cis actor to play the roles was, Tobia says, “so elegant in it’s simplicity.”
For the reading, Gordon did away with the stage directions and opened the play up so that instead of being a one-person show, the play has a different context that allows for more actors to get involved.
“I decided to set the play in a warehouse where four friends just stumble upon it one day, and it’s raining outside and they need a place to go and within the warehouse, when they turn the lights on, they discover all of this history,” Gordon says. “They discover a projector with all of slides with Charlotte and all the characters in the play and pages of manuscript and letters of correspondence between Charlotte and all this other characters. So if these modern day people learning about her, you’re not necessarily being her or being the character in the play, but taking them on as anybody would play pretend to learn about someone.”
Tobia is joined by trans actors Rain Valdez, Jason Greene, and Scott Turner Schofield, all of whom take on several roles within the reimagined show.
“This is just the kind of work that I think myself and so many of my friends who are trans performers are hungry for, you know?” Tobia says. “It’s substantial, it’s historic. As an actor, it’s really complicated, it’s hard, it’s multifaceted. You have to place like 30 different people in the course of 90 minutes. You have to try three different accents, like I’m doing, even just for my chunk of this I’m doing like a Southern accent, I’m doing a German officer, I’m doing a French reporter, I’m doing a reporter from Brooklyn, and I’m doing like three or four other people. It’s a project that has such range and depth to it to, and it feels like the kind of work that every trans person I know in Hollywood is hungry for. It’s so cool that we get the chance to really own it.”
And the audience benefits, too.
“I think it’s really interesting when actors who have a certain experience within their story telling the story, it just adds a new level of texture that I think is really important in the theater,” Gordon says. “I think audiences really respond to that.”
Tobia says they are also proud of the support the show has received, and the ability to pay every trans and gender nonconforming person who has been involved.
“When I entered into this project, my goal, I want an all trans cast and I want art and I want to focus on having a trans crew as much as we need crew,” Tobia says. “I want to focus on hiring trans people, and I want to focus on properly compensating trans actors and creatives because I know how under-compensated most trans and genderqueer folks are in the industry.”
Tobia says the the City of West Hollywood’s Transgender Advisory Board and the Los Angeles LGBT Center helped to make sure that the actors and crew were paid for their work and time.
“That to me feels just as radical as having trans people do the reading in the first place,” Tobia says. “Like trans actors doing projects of value and of worth and getting paid for it and not being expected to work for free in order to do something that’s brilliant and beautiful and has community value feels super important to me. That there’s economic empowerment imperative with this project is what I’m most proud of as a producer. We’re able to pay trans people for doing brilliant work because so often we’re expect to do brilliant work for the community without any compensation. And I think that we deserve a world in which we do brilliant work but it’s for the community, for compensation.”
Although tonight is the only planned performance so far, Tobia hopes to eventually produce a full-scale all-trans production of I Am My Own Wife.
“Ultimately, I mean I would love to take the production to New York; I‘d love to put it up in multiple cities. I’d love for it to really go big again because I just think that the timing of this show–it blowing up back in 2004 meant that it sort of stayed … within a group of really brilliant theater folk. But I think that this story now, given sort of all that’s happened in the past 15 years and all of the opening that’s been created for trans and non gender nonconforming people to bring their art into the public eye, I think that the potential for what a revival could be, the potential for how big this could be and how widely adored an iteration of this could be just feels right.”
I Am My Own Wife is at The Renberg Theatre tonight in Los Angeles at 7:30pm. Tickets are still available.
Photos by Reiche/ullstein bild via Getty Images, robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images, Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Two Spirit, LLC