Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright (2004)

Summary:  Doug Wright's Introduction explains that the play is "a one-woman show, performed by a man" (xix).  Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is an East Berlin transvestite who has managed to survive both the Nazis and the Communists and lives to tell about it as she guides audiences through her home--which is a sort of collector's museum.  One actor plays thirty-six characters (including the playwright) in a style reminiscent of the ethnographic performances of Anna Deavere-Smith.

  This play is unlike anything else on the list of plays that have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  Currently, it is the only one-person show on the list and it is one of the only plays that is decidedly not about American Life (which the guidelines suggest/mandate).  The other plays that I have encountered thus far that are not about "American Life" are Ruined and The Diary of Anne Frank.  An argument could be made that all three of these plays deal with issues/people that America should have cared about, but instead turned a blind eye to (genocide in the Congo, Holocaust, Communist persecution). 

One of the most compelling parts of Wright's text is the Introduction where he details the practical and emotional experience of writing this play.  He collected hundreds of hours of interviews and then was at a loss about how to put them all together.  Eventually, his colleague Robert Blacker suggested, "Whatever you do, don't write a play about history.  Write a play about your love affair with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.  If you're lucky, the requisite history will take care of itself."   Wright replies, "It was the most liberating gift a fellow artist could give; permission to write my own story.  For the first time, the play's structure dawned on me.  It wouldn't be a straight-forward biographical drama; it would chart my own relationship with my heroine" (xv).

Wright does an excellent job of showcasing Charlotte while using the other characters to propel the narrative; but, at times, it seems that the other characters are present for the sole purpose of providing dramatic structure.  This play is moving and important, but much of it's critical acclaim should be credited to Jefferson Mays--the actor who won a Tony Award for bringing Wright's complicated text (and the complicated character of Charlotte) to life onstage.
Inscribed copy of I Am My Own Wife.  Gift from Jessica Watkins (who worked with Doug Wright at the La Jolla Playhouse, 2009). 

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