The Gift of Visibility
By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
Out Front Theatre presents I Am My Own Wife, the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play that tells the story of real-life trans woman Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Peach spoke to trans actor Peter Smith, who takes on the eponymous task of playing all 35 roles in the play.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a standup comedian, actor and performance artist based in New York City. The Great Plains and the West is home, that’s where my family lives. I’m down only in Atlanta for rehearsals and the run of the show. After these six weeks, it’s back up North for me unless I meet the man of my dreams! But Georgia’s own Flannery O’Connor was right when she said a good man is hard to find.
Tell us a little bit about of I Am My Own Wife.
On a surface level, ‘I Am My Own Wife’ tells the story of a playwright named Doug Wright falling in love with the life of Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, a trans woman who navigated Nazi Germany and Communist oppression in East Berlin. It is written to be played by one actor, driving home a deeper cut which is that humans contain multitudes. What I find most interesting is that this play is also about how the truth can be told and how different people hear it.
You are talking on all 35 roles in the play – how do you prepare for such an eponymous task?
As an actor, I prepared for this as I would any other acting job. Memorizing my character’s lines, discovering their wants and needs and researching the world within the play. It’s just multiplied by thirty-five. I wish my time could be multiplied that much, but don’t we all? The only major difference in this process is that I’ve leaned on my loved ones way more than a usual gig. The emotional and physical demands of this play can become very overwhelming, and it is easy to lose track of myself in the midst of the craziness. My best friends and siblings can bring me back to Earth. I’ve called them sobbing multiple times and even if they don’t pick up, it’s almost more comforting to know that I can call them in the first place. I’m beyond lucky to have them and also to have such an amazing director, Graham Miller. He’s based in New York too and is so smart, sensitive and tactful. He’s had a major effect on me as an artist and a professional. I grow every day because of him. He has this innate sense of leadership that I trust completely. This production is just as much his as it is mine. We’re also both Virgos, which is adorable to me.
The role of trans woman, Charlotte, has been taken on by numerous performers – some trans and some not. What do you think it brings to the play to have a trans actor in the role of a trans character?
Trans actors have historically been denied this quality of writing and exposure. In the play, after she receives a cultural medal of honor from the government on German national television, Charlotte talks about visibility. She says, “I thought, it’s good because other people see that a transvestite can work.” She goes on to say “If other people – heterosexual people – they look at the television, and they read the newspapers, and they say, “Ah! He or she is able to work, ja?”
Has I Am My Own Wife impacted your own journey as trans?
I owe a lot to this play. I saw the original Broadway production as a teen when it was on tour in Chicago. My nascent dysphoria was calmed so much by Charlotte’s story. Trans visibility was few and far between in 2004. In my standup set, I joke about how up until a couple of years ago, trans characters in media had exclusively been murderers in lipstick. Buffalo Bill in Silence of The Lambs for instance. Despite not knowing the precise root of my dysphoria at the time, let alone what “transgender” meant exactly, I was unconsciously desperate to see a trans person that wasn’t a fictional homicidal psychopath. Those depictions were invented by lazy cis writers using identity as shock and gimmick. By seeing this play and learning about Charlotte, I was lead down a path of researching queer ancestors, something I continue to do avidly. I’m so excited to not only show Charlotte to Atlanta but also be visible myself as a proud trans person. Being trans is such an amazing gift, and I’m so happy to share it.
I Am My Own Wife touches on various major subjects like politics, race, sexuality, et cetera. Why do you think that the play still carries such a punch today?
This play has never been more relevant. Literal Nazis are running rampant, enabled by our President who would rather be a Dictator. His regime’s obsession with borders, exclusion and twisting the truth is sickening.
I Am My Own Wife will play March 14-30 at Out Front Theatre.
Go to outfronttheatre.com for information on showtimes and ticketing.