Closed Nov. 18
Umstead Park UCC, Raleigh
Notable actor Brian Westbrook carefully bears a weather-beaten leather journal in his hands throughout I Am My Own Wife. The gesture has two meanings at once: In this enhanced staged reading from Justice Theater Project—fully costumed by David Serxner on Louis Bailey’s tasteful set—the disguised script is a lifeline for an actor who’s not fully off book. But there’s also a palpable sense of veneration in the way Westbrook holds and consults the leather-bound volume that suggests a celebrant in the act of worship.
This makes sense, given the provenance of playwright Doug Wright’s biographical solo work, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play in 2004. The text preserves fragments of the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German self-identified transvestite who somehow survived half a century under the notorious gay-oppressive regimes of the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic. As such, it would be fitting to handle von Mahlsdorf’s account as a rare testament among the handful of surviving gay narratives from such openly hostile times. As is noted at mid-show, she teaches a history many never knew existed.
Still, for all its awards, Wright’s text remains theatrically problematic as a one-person show. It still shatters disbelief when an actor radically varies the voices of at least a dozen characters—including Wright, Texan journalist John Marks, and irascible collector Alfred Kirschner—while his physicality and costume perpetually anchor him in the form of von Mahlsdorf.
An even larger problem, however, lies in the playwright’s fundamental ambivalence about his subject. Wright has written that his inability to excuse or effectively contextualize the allegations of Soviet collaboration in von Mahlsdorf’s Stasi file made him change the play’s entire frame from a biography of her to an account of his own obsession with her. This makes I Am My Own Wife something of a theatrical photobomb, one in which the subject is repeatedly upstaged by her interlocutor, who includes himself as a primary character in the play. A move like that generally doesn’t make for good theater.
Genre theorist Janet Gunn would have advised Wright that memoir isn’t journalism. At their best, autobiographical accounts give us the sense that a subject has made of her life—its fundamental meaning beyond the sum of the facts. After The Emotions of Normal People, Little Green Pig’s 2015 excavation of everyday life in the East German surveillance state, we’re probably more aware than most audiences that one in every six citizens of the GDR was a Stasi informant, though many only become one under considerable duress.
The central and possibly insoluble difficulty in I Am My Own Wife isn’t that we don’t believe von Mahlsdorf. It’s that her playwright doesn’t believe her, as he admits in one late passage. When that faith is broken, a fine actor and director are left to pick up the fragments. We can see them here.