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One (wo)man show: 'I Am My Own Wife' tells story of early transgender pioneer

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It’s easy to forget that the end of World War II wasn’t the end of oppression in Germany. Not long after the downfall of the Nazi regime, up went the Berlin Wall of Communist Germany. Many people found themselves fighting to survive twice in one lifetime. 

I CAN ONLY BE ME:  Leo Cortez rehearses for his role of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an early transgender pioneer during the Nazi and Communist regimes in Germany, in the one man show 'I Am My Own Wife.' - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • I CAN ONLY BE ME: Leo Cortez rehearses for his role of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an early transgender pioneer during the Nazi and Communist regimes in Germany, in the one man show 'I Am My Own Wife.'

Some of them didn’t survive, but others did. Tucked away in a little corner of history is the story of one woman who did. 

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a transvestite and celebrated antiques dealer who successfully navigated the Nazi and Communist regimes, while living her life in full drag at a museum she ran in East Berlin. Her story was turned into a play, I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright that is showing at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre March 18 and 19. 

Along with Charlotte, the show features some 30 other characters, and they’re all played by one man: Leo Cortez. The play’s only actor said he was intrigued by Charlotte’s story as well as the acting challenge the script presented. 

“I really love how the arc of this character story of Charlotte is unknown to so many people and the amazing journey she had surviving the Nazis and the Cold War dressed as a woman, never dressed as a man.” Cortez said. “She was always herself in these two regimes and was never sent to prison or punished for it.”

IDENTITY CRISIS:  'I Am My Own Wife' features more than 30 characters, but only one actor. The play will be part of the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s Ubu’s Other Show Staged Readings on March 18 and 19. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • IDENTITY CRISIS: 'I Am My Own Wife' features more than 30 characters, but only one actor. The play will be part of the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s Ubu’s Other Show Staged Readings on March 18 and 19.

While act one is all about Charlotte’s world, by act two, the main character starts to fall off her pedestal as the writer and audience begin to wonder how she really survived as a trans person during such hostile regimes. As the saying goes, all’s fair in love and war. 

“When they started digging deep into her files, they found there was a darker story,” Cortez said. “They started recognizing that she may have been an informant for the Stasi [the Ministry for State Security for East Germany], turning in people that she knew who then went to prison. There’s a lot of ambiguity and all we really get is Charlotte’s story. She always held by the fact that she did what she had to do and she never did it maliciously or for the money.”

It’s not necessarily the story we want to hear. We want the underdog to be pure of heart and noble, but times were hard. Who knows what choices any of us would make as someone in a minority group during a war with an oppressive regime. Still, show director Michael Siebrass said by the time the final curtain drops, audience members will be able to decide if Charlotte was really selling people out to the Stasi or not. But that’s beside the point.

- WHO'S THAT NOW?:  Watch leading actor Leo Cortez transition between main character Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and 30 other characters as quickly as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. 'I Am My Own Wife' will be showing at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre on March 18 at 7 p.m. and on March 19 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets cost $12 and can be purchased online at slolittletheatre.org. -
  • WHO'S THAT NOW?: Watch leading actor Leo Cortez transition between main character Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and 30 other characters as quickly as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. 'I Am My Own Wife' will be showing at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre on March 18 at 7 p.m. and on March 19 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets cost $12 and can be purchased online at slolittletheatre.org.

“I think it’s an exciting theatrical experience,” Siebrass said. “It teaches them about a piece of history that I know I didn’t know before, and she’s an amazing character. Even if she did collude with the Stasi, it doesn’t matter. One of the most important points of the play is survival and what people are willing to do to survive and this individual survived through two of the most treacherous regimes in the western world.” 

Ryah Cooley is keeping it real at rcooley@newtimesslo.com.

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