Backlash Over Cis Actor Cast in 'I Am My Own Wife' Forces Cancellation of Upcoming Production

Tuesday May 4, 2021

The battle over cis actors playing trans roles has led to a Connecticut theater to cancel an upcoming production of "I Am My Own Wife," Doug Wright's award-winning play about German trans woman Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (aka Lothar Berfelde), reports the Hartford Courant.

"Complaints on Facebook about the Warner's production of the one-actor show said trans voices should tell trans stories, echoing an ongoing debate about representation in the arts world," writes the Courant.

The production was scheduled for streamed performances from May 14 through May 22.

"It is incredibly damaging and harmful to trans people to cast cis men in trans women's roles," Embrys Graham, a genderfluid theater artist, wrote in emails to the Warner. "It perpetuates the damaging idea that trans women are 'men in dresses.' This concept has been the cause of hatred and violence against trans women."

The Warner, reads its web site, "is in operation year-round with more than 160 public performances and serves 100,000 patrons." The solo play was to feature out actor T. Sean Maher as von Mahlsdorf, a survivor of both the Nazis and East German communists during and after World War II. Wright based his plays on conversations with von Mahlsdorf, who turned her family's Berlin estate into a museum that became an improbable LGBTQ meeting place during the communist rule of East German. Her means of survival, though, relied on collusion with the Stasi, the East German secret police.

In the play, the actor playing von Mahlsdorf has some 35 characters, which has made it the kind of challenging role that brings home awards. Jefferson Mays, who originated the role, won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Actor. Wright's play also won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Play. The first instance of a trans actor playing the role came in 2016, according to the play's Wiki article, when Chicago's About Face Theatre re-imagined the text, directed by the company's artistic director Andrew Volkoff, that used four actors and featured trans actor Delia Kropp in the role of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. It was recently produced by New Haven's Long Wharf Theater with a nonbinary actor in 2020.

"Long Wharf was heralded for employing not just a nonbinary actor but an almost entirely nonbinary or transgender creative team amid a national discussion of cisgender actors portraying transgender characters," wrote the Courant.

Rufus de Rham, the new executive of the Warner, canceled the production last week, saying his decision was an opportunity to discuss the issues surrounding casting and to use it as an educational tool.

"The intent was to tell this story from a sympathetic and respectful place. But this is a changing conversation that is happening in the world. It wasn't just because five people were calling us out on Facebook," de Rham said. "We're taking this as an educational moment, and looking at ways to have a broader discussion. How we do this, when we don't have the resources a professional theater might, is what we are working on."

He added that he has spoken to trans consultants and that there will be staff training on cultural sensitivity.

Fly Jamerson, a director and playwright based in Nebraska, criticized the production to the Courant in an email: "The bodies and gender expressions of actors give meaning to how we perceive the characters in a play, and casting cis actors in trans roles has historically had a negative impact on how members of the TGNC community are perceived and treated in the real world."

Maher, called the decision "a kick in the teeth. I was told in advance there had been discussions, but I was told they were not going to cancel. I'm not looking for sympathy — I'm a worker and I lost my job. But I felt there were also saying 'This wasn't worth doing.'"

Adding, "Of course I'm sympathetic to the trans community; I'm part of the LGBTQ community. Is [casting only a trans actor] a viable argument? Absolutely. Wouldn't it have been best to use this as an opportunity to educate?"

Katherine Ray, who was to direct the Warner production, said she wasn't told about the cancellation until it had already been decided. Ray said she is the daughter of World War II refugees and relates to its tale of survival.

"It's not just a gay history, it's not just a trans history, it's not just a Jewish history. It's a very complicated, complex, beautiful story," she told the Courant.

According to Broadway World, Wright addressed the issue.

"Since I wrote the play twenty years ago, the trans community has gained enormous visibility. It has been inspiring to witness, and I am thrilled that they have embraced my play and its heroine. I support (and celebrate) the impetus of trans people for greater representation," Wright said. "I also empathize with the actor who prepared for the role only to see the production canceled. In the future, I hope theaters considering the play will first reach out to the LGBTQ+ community for open, transparent conversations about casting expectations around 'I Am My Own Wife.'"