JEFFERSON MAYS: In One Actor, a Gay Survivor and Her Peers

Sometimes the moments that signal a great performance happen without words. Case in point: the opening and closing images of Doug Wright‘s play I Am My Own Wife, performed by Jefferson Mays at Playwrights Horizons. The first thing we see is a slim figure crossing behind a wall of lace and entering through French doors center stage. It is clearly a man wearing a black dress, a black headwrap, sensible shoes, and a pearl necklace. He beams at the audience, his eyes glitter, he opens his mouth to speak -- and then disappears through the door, only to return ceremonially bearing a large antique phonograph. Who is this person, and what was he starting to say?

We never hear the interrupted thought, but by the end of the play we do know that this character is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the German transvestite who managed to survive both the Nazis and the oppressive Communist regime while running a museum of antique furniture in East Berlin for 33 years. We’ve heard many stories, and yet we still don’t quite know what to make of the play’s final tableau: the now-hatless actor, gazing attentively at that phonograph, a human Nipper with his ears cocked for His Master’s Voice. 

"From the very beginning, I didn’t want the audience to get a bead on Charlotte," Mr. Mays said recently, interviewed in his dressing room at the theater. "I didn’t want them to ever know what she’s going to do next or what she’s thinking or what she believes. I wanted to make a puzzle."

Since it opened May 27, I Am My Own Wife has earned some of the most enthusiastic reviews any play has seen all year. Directed by Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project), the production has extended its run to July 20 with the strong possibility of a commercial transfer. Ostensibly, the show is a portrait of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, based on interviews with the author, whose play about the Marquis de Sade, Quills, became an Academy Award-nominated film. But it’s also a theatrical essay about the importance of recording history that ends up challenging the reliability of all historical narratives, including its own. And this essay takes the form of a two-hour solo for a heretofore little-known instrument called Jefferson Mays, whose virtuosic performance has critics reaching for words like "riveting" and "spellbinding." 

In the play, the 38-year-old actor impersonates not only Charlotte but also the 40 other characters who emerge in the astonishing tale she relates. These include the cross-dressing lesbian aunt who mentored her as a gender-confused lad named Lothar Berfelde, the brutal Nazi father whom she murdered by battering him with a rolling pin while he slept, and the SS officers from whom she barely escaped with her life, not to mention Mr. Wright, who first met her in 1993 when she was 65 and developed a serious case of hero worship. As the playwright tells Charlotte, "I grew up gay in the Bible Belt; I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Third Reich. The Nazis, and then the Communists? It seems to me, you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist."
The play soft-pedals some of Charlotte’s outrageousness, particularly in its depiction of her nun-like chastity. (In Rosa von Praunheim’s 1992 documentary film I Am My Own Woman, the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who looked a lot like Jack Lemmon and wore everything from leather hot pants to thrift-store schmattes, describes a robust sex life that included cruising public toilets and a 27-year relationship with a man that centered on spanking and rubber garments.) But her complexity comes through. When German newspapers subsequently report that Charlotte was one of numerous public figures (others included playwright Heiner Muller and novelist Christa Wolf) who had served as informants to the Communist secret police, the revelation causes Mr. Wright to question everything he thought he knew and admired about Charlotte’s instinct for survival. The play evokes many agendas -- Charlotte’s self-heroism, Doug Wright’s gay pride, the media’s finger-pointing, and the audience‘s own beliefs about World War II, gay history, and naming names. Mr. Mays’ performance embodies all these points of view without endorsing or denying any.

To paraphrase another show about surviving Nazis, how do you solve a problem like Charlotte? "What I arrived at is that you have to believe that everything you’re saying at all times is true," said Mr. Mays. "And then you have to say contradictory things. She’s committed to everything she’s saying. She never lies."
Like most overnight successes, Mr. Mays has been around a while. He won an Obie Award in 1994 for his second play in New York, Charles L. Mee’s Orestes, and he has played Hamlet, Tartuffe, and Peter Pan in regional theaters. He appeared in three of Mr. Wright’s earlier plays, including Quills at New York Theater Workshop in 1995, which is why the playwright summoned him to the Sundance Theater Festival in the summer of 2000 to undertake the role of "tranny granny." In the mountains of Utah began an unusual collaboration among writer, actor, and director that wended its way to workshop productions at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in 2001 and About Face Theatre in Chicago last winter before it arrived at Playwrights Horizons.

Mr. Wright, who had spent several years trying to write what he calls a "Masterpiece Theatre" version of Charlotte’s life, had no script in hand when the team first assembled at Sundance. All he had were boxes of his transcribed interviews and other source material, which he, Mr. Kaufman, and Mr. Mays began to sift through. "Reading the transcripts aloud, Jefferson started to create voices and find dramatic opportunities within Charlotte’s stories," the playwright recalled in a telephone interview. "What interested us was how economically he could move from character to character. With an arched eyebrow or a flicker of a smile, time and place could change. It was almost like a Chiense brush painter who with a single stroke can suggest an entire tree. It was thrilling to know that I could write an international press conference with ten reporters chasing Charlotte down the street and know that Jefferson could realize it by himself on a bare stage."

Mr. Kaufman had created two plays from interview transcripts and found materials, "Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde" and "The Laramie Project," so he devised theater games to put Mr. Wright’s research on its feet. In one, each collaborator had to create a two-minute performance based on something from the Charlotte files. Mr. Mays came in the next day with a shoebox full of doll-sized furniture from the catalog of Charlotte’s museum that he’d made with index cards and nail scissors. (A version of that scene remains in the show.) "Working with him is like working with Yo-Yo Ma," said Mr. Kaufman in a telephone interview. "He’s an actor who has not only an incredible physical and vocal instrument but great imagination and erudition. One day we were working on this reporter. I said, ‘Tell me about her,’ and for the next 15 minutes I got a Dostoevskian biography of a character who has three lines in the play."

Actors are traditionally considered interpretive rather than creative artists, but Mr. Mays belongs to a growing cadre of performers trained to be fully equipped theater-makers by influential director and teacher Anne Bogart. Mr. Mays first met Ms. Bogart when he was a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego, and he spent several years as a member of her SITI Company. Ms. Bogart teaches actors "The Viewpoints," a system created by choreographer Mary Overlie, which encourages performers to develop their own imaginative material in nine separate aspects of being onstage: architecture, gesture, shape, tempo, duration, spatial relationships, repetition, kinesthetic response, and topography. Having been in plays in high school and as an undergraduate at Yale College, Mr. Mays said, "I was used to getting a script and memorizing lines and being told where to stand. So it cracked my head open to think of myself as being in control of space and time for two hours."

As a student and as a member of the SITI Company, Mr. Mays also studied the rigorously physical theatrical technique invented by Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki as an alternative to television-style naturalism, which he considered insufficient for performing classical plays. Adapted from a variety of forms (including Noh, Kabuki, butoh, and African dance), the Suzuki method teaches actors "to be very strong and still," said Mr. Mays. "You’re trained to have this buzzing potential for sudden violent movement and to be able to speak at any volume at any moment. So your engine is going at 100 miles an hour, even though you’re in stillness. I don’t do that work anymore, but it does inform my own movement onstage."

How so? "I like stillness. When I go to the theater, I like people to be still so I can hear them. I don’t like a lot of behavioral shuffling. You know what I mean, that television acting." He demonstrated, offhandedly scratching his nose, tugging his ear, patting his knee. "It’s almost as codified as Kabuki, the things you see people doing on ‘Beverly Hills 90201.’ The theater is a place of hearing predominantly. You make shapes onstage so you can hear something."

Standing in his dressing room, Mr. Mays is surprisingly tall and rosy-cheeked. Next to his makeup mirror is an 8-by-10 glossy photo of his girlfriend, an Australian actress named Susan Lyons. Yes, he has a girlfriend. He said that people have assumed that he’s gay all his life. He grew up in Clinton, Connecticut, the youngest of three children born to a retired naval officer and a children‘s librarian. He acknowledged that "it was painful in high school, being called ‘faggot’ because you like to wear ascots and speak in complete sentences."

How does he deal with it now? "I’m rather flattered," he said, his eyes flashing with a mischievous gleam. "It means people don’t have a bead on me."

New York Times, June 22, 2003