Actors typically make bold choices in rehearsal and performance. But few would be so bold as to contact the artistic director of a theater company and suggest that an entire production be mounted just so they could star in it.
But that's essentially what happened with About Face Theatre's revised revival of gay playwright Doug Wright's one-man play I Am My Own Wife. Transgender actress Delia Kropp thoroughly researched Wright's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama before making her case to About Face artistic director Andrew Volkoff.
"I send an email to Andrew and it basically outlined the proposal for a multi-actor version of the show and for me to be essentially the first transgender Charlotte von Mahlsdorf," Kropp said. "The whole idea of having me involved, for me bringing this forward, is to actually do this with the sensitivities and sensibilities of a transgender person."
I Am My Own Wife explores Wright's fascinating and complex friendship with the aging Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a pioneering 20th-century transgender woman who survived the Nazis before and during World War II and later under the repressive Communist regime in East Germany. Wright wrote the play as a solo show, which requires a charismatic actor to switch back and forth between von Mahlsdorf and a multitude of other roles.
About Face Theatre presented the world premiere of I Am My Own Wife in 2003 at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art before the production transferred to New York for an off-Broadway run. The critical response was so phenomenal that commercial producers later transferred I Am My Own Wife to Broadway.
Original star Jefferson Mays not only won a 2004 Tony Award for Best Performance by Leading Actor in a Play, he also got the Jeff Award for the same category when I Am My Own Wife played a 2005 Chicago return engagement at the Goodman Theatre.
Kropp laughs now when she considers how she contacted About Face's Volkoff out of the blue with her suggestions, even though the two had never worked together. The fact that Volkoff had already directed a 2008 production of I Am My Own Wife for Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts also worried Kropp whether he would want to repeat himself.
"I was so impressed with Delia's courage and the letter of her proposal was so incredibly well-thought-out," said Volkoff, who was open to Kropp's artistic suggestions. "As the artistic director of About Face, I think it's important to court the queer artists in our community and to have one reach out this passionately about a project that originally started with us, it just seemed like a perfect fit."
Kropp had multiple reasons for not wanting to do the play as originally written for a solo performer. One idea was to give von Mahlsdorf more of a constant presence in the play. Other implications were more complex.
"As a trans woman, I am very much aware of what the general population's perception of us is and for many people, they think this is an act and it's just externalit's about the clothes, the makeupthings of that nature," said Kropp, who legally transitioned with the state of Illinois in 2011 and returned to acting professionally in 2015.
"I didn't want to have a performance going back and forth over the gender lines. About 95 percent of the other characters in the play are male," Kropp said. "I feel very uncomfortable being expected to be my dead or former self."
As a sort of test run, About Face teamed up with the Chicago Inclusion Project to stage an April 2016 reading of I Am My Own Wife starring Kropp at the DANK Haus German American Cultural Center in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood. Since they had never worked together, Volkoff wanted to see how Kropp handled the material.
"To Delia's credit, she started working with a German dialect coach then for that reading," Volkoff said. "We did have one woman at the end who said, 'I had no idea [Delia] was not German.'"
Equally important was to see how the play worked beyond its usual one-man structure with the addition of three actors. Getting Wright's permission for any changes to his script was also a concern.
But to Volkoff's delight, very little had to be changed in the script. Volkoff said Wright has also been enthusiastic about the implications of About Face's I Am My Own Wife revival starring Kropp.
"[Wright] is very excited to see what having a trans actor will do for the integrity of the piece and the integrity of Charlotte's story," Volkoff said. "In the 13 years that AFT did the first presentation of this, so much has changed in the world around the conversation of gender and transgender visibility. To approach this piece today and in this climate, it really requires a thoughtfulness and an intentionality about wanting to be truthful about how we are presenting the story of a transgender woman who lived through the 1940s and beyond."
For Kropp, it's a huge honor to play one of the more famous, but also divisive, transgender figures from 20th-century history.
"[Charlotte was an] incredibly rich, incredibly complex, and incredibly ambiguous kind of person morally in some respects, which as a transgender actress, that's what you want," Kropp said. "I love playing heroes, but you really want to show a fully fleshed-out, 360-degree complex human being and with this role, you sure have it."
About Face Theatre's I Am My Own Wife plays from Friday, Nov. 4, through Saturday, Dec. 10, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Previews run through Nov. 6, with an official press opening 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10. Previews are $20 and $10 for students, and regular-run shows are $40 and $20 for students; call 773-975-8150 or visit AboutFaceTheatre.org .
Note: I Am My Own Wife cast member and About Face Theatre Artistic Associate Scott Duff is an employee of Windy City Media Group, which publishes the Windy City Times.