With a long string of red beads hanging glamorously over her black dress, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf ascends the stage of the Dodona Theater. She is the trans woman at the center of American playwright Doug Wright’s 2003 play “I Am My Own Wife,” now brought to Kosovo by director Kushtrim Koliqi with the title “Unë jam vetë grua.”
Charlotte sits alone in her museum,“The Museum of Happiness,” and with noble pride shows us the items she has collected and protected, souvenirs of her survival and proof of her struggle for freedom.
Soon enough her museum turns into a battlefield where everyone and everything fights Charlotte. The ease with which she took the stage starts to fade as the story of her life unfolds.
The play is challenging on two levels.
First, the play demands a lot from its only actor, Adrian Morina, who shifts between around 40 different roles in an hour. Morina manages to play both the role of Charlotte and the roles of those who hate Charlotte, those who want to undo her.
Through Morina’s acting, the audience experiences the full weight of the play. The moment he steps on stage, he turns into Charlotte. Through the respect that he clearly has for the role, he gives Charlotte von Mahlsdorf the respect that no one gave her throughout her complicated and sometimes impossible life.
The play is challenging too in subject matter, covering the lives denied to a trans woman and to LGBTQ+ people.
Charlotte lived in 20th century Germany. More accurately, Charlotte survived 20th century Germany. Her survival is not just the story of someone who survived a single war — it is the story of someone who survived many wars and whose life embodies the struggle of being a human, a trans woman, a woman.
Surviving as a trans woman
Morina, that is, Charlotte, goes up to her museum, to her place center stage, after a long battle against being kept at the margins.
At the beginning, Charlotte experiences World War II, during which people like her faced sterilization, concentration camps, rape and persecution. She experiences a war against her existence and a war at home with her Nazi father, who was violent towards Charlotte, her mother and her aunt (who was one of the few characters who accepted Charlotte as she was). She struggles too with society, which throughout the play appear in different forms: TV show presenters, journalists, representatives of institutions and psychologists.
Facing down Nazis, soldiers and civilians, she survives these wars on her own as a trans woman. Some of these wars are ones that LGBTQ+ people and women in Kosovo are still fighting today in the next century.
“I am a transvestite,” says Charlotte at the beginning of the play, “my life is a normal life.”
She and others like her are tired of people doubting her. Before speaking with them she wants to do them a favor: to free them from their vulgar curiosity and the burden of unanswered questions. Charlotte knows well that in her museum of happiness, which she has worked so hard to build, the object that arouses the most interest is herself. She doesn’t fight this anymore.
She wants to resolve visitors’ mystification. She seems to know that others cannot overcome themselves, cannot be silent, cannot wait. They speak quickly, asking questions, full of doubt and fear when faced with what they see as an abnormal being without a place.
She rolls up her sleeves to emphasize her point. She shows us her skin, lays her flesh and bones in front of us and says, look at me, I am human. Like many transgender people, she has been pushed to the point where she has to state “I am human.” She lives with the constant rejection of her humanity and claims that she is inhuman or false.
A heretical body
This drama plays out every day in the lives of transgender people, who live in bodies that everyone measures, observes and which are declared “heretical.”
Charlotte, whatever she does, as the creator of the Museum of Happiness, as someone who has preserved a space of freedom, as a collector of valuable antiquities, is reduced to the questions: “What are you? Are you a boy or a girl? Are you male or female?”
The people who ask her these questions have seen many wars. They have witnessed one of the most terrible events in human history, the Holocaust. At one point a Nazi soldier, as he goes from house to house to recruit other soldiers, rapes Charlotte. She kills her father. She is suspected of espionage. Everything is somehow justifiable except for one thing: Charlotte’s identity.
This is the greatest violation, not the rape, murder, racism, Nazism or holocaust. And then in the end, she’s not seen as capable of committing a crime because she is not seen as human.
And so Charlotte tries to preempt others. She knows that whoever she encounters has already started down the path of trying to break her down, examine her, pathologize and criminalize her. She establishes her position early, perhaps hoping that for once in her life she won’t have to listen to the nonsense from the people around her who seem to feel a moral obligation to make her life difficult.
She is put on trial by those who have the power to do so, mostly men. She faces those who, defending some unwritten axiom of nature, try to become not just the guardians of the natural but start to think that they are nature. They call her sick, they tell her that she is a stain on nature, that she is the biggest lie in the world.
These guardians of what is natural find much to be dissatisfied over. In Kosovo, the idea that an unmarried woman can give birth and raise children bothers them. The idea of a woman who doesn’t want to give birth frustrates them. They are disturbed if a lesbian or gay person wants to get married. A girl who travels by taxi with five guys mostly surely be perverse; the 11-year-old girl who was raped by five men and boys surely holds some blame. They are disturbed by a drag queen in a reality show, by a trans man who shaves his head, by a woman asserting her right to property, by transgender women.
We see this everywhere: in the streets, in our courts, in our schools, in the Assembly, in our workplaces, inside our homes. There is nowhere that these “guardians of nature” have not tried to show us how to live our lives.
Nature then becomes the domain of men, of the millions of people who go about giving orders in its name. Men’s prerogatives become what is defined as natural. If this is nature, then we must become unnatural beings. We must shake this idea of nature to its foundations and expand the idea of what is natural.
This is why Charlotte feels the need to present herself as she does. For once in her life she will tell her own story, her truth, which everyone thinks they can tell better.
She says: I am my own wife.
I am a woman. I am my own wife. I am a lonely woman. I’m alone, a woman. I am a wife to myself. Only for myself, I am a wife. Any form of the phrase would make sense as the title of the play: “I Am My Own Wife.”
Each form has meaning because each sentence has passed through women’s lips. Apart from the title of the play, each form of the phrase has the same political and revolutionary weight. We live in a world that seeks to reduce the existence of women, to steal their ideas, power, autonomy — to kill them, violate them, trample them down.
Being a woman is difficult. Being a trans woman even more so.
Who dares be in opposition?
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf dares. Women dare. LGBTQ+ people dare. People who have been excluded from what’s considered natural dare.
When Charlotte states that her life is a “normal” life, she invites us to think of normality, which is the pillar of her narrative.
For Charlotte, normality is a life of pain, rejection and survival. She has often been attacked with eggs and her body has been categorized as illegal in a space that calls itself free of crime, and yet is immersed in it. She has been punished so much that she no longer even tries to explain herself.
At the end, in a final attempt to exploit her life, Charlotte is invited onto a TV show. One by one, the other guests start throwing eggs and insults at her. As she takes the broken eggs into her hands she shows that the violence of her oppressors has become normal.
But no matter how much violence is normalized, no one tolerates violence forever. She runs out of patience. She waves the rainbow flag of queer liberation and calls us all “fascists, Nazis, communists.”
Everyone who is oppressed, sooner or later will run out of patience.
“Excuse me, how the fuck do you know who I am?” she demands.
It should not be Charlotte who is asking questions of herself or others, but for those who impose their violence on others to start asking themselves some questions.
Before they go out trying to fix bodies that are not wrong, to heal diseases that do not exist, to make right what is not awry, let them ask themselves: Who am I to speak for nature? Who am I to measure the freedom of others? Who the hell am I?
The play “I am My Own Wife” is a production of INTEGRA. It premiered in Kosovo in 2019. It was performed at the Dodona Theater on April 19 and will be at the Kujtim Spahivogli National Experimental Theater on May 16.
Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / INTEGRA.