Poles, Queers, and the Pope: Visiting Poland with His Acclaimed Queer Play I Am My Own Wife, Playwright Doug Wright Is Caught Up in Homophobic History with the Death of John Paul II

Article excerpt

When I arrive in Krakow, the city is still in mourning for the pope. His hunched, wrinkled face is in shop windows everywhere: He peers out from behind shoe displays, from apothecary shelves lined with bromides and analgesics, and from newsstands, where he dominates every magazine cover. It's impossible to escape his gaze.

But his is not the only poster in town. There's another one too, and it's a tad more provocative. On it, a nude male body hovers on a field of tiny red polka dots. Superimposed over it, a translucent pink dress. In black boldface type, the title of my play: I AM MY OWN WIFE.

It's true; in the wake of John Paul II's passing, I've come to this predominantly Roman Catholic country for the local premiere of my work about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the celebrated East German who defied both the Nazis and the Communists as an openly gay transvestite. Obviously, the two events are hardly correlative in scope--the death of a pontiff and the opening night of a play. Nevertheless, they're both citywide events, and they're being touted everywhere, in city guides and on kiosks. It's a strange juxtaposition, to say the least.

Sixteen years after the fall of Communism, Poland is still reluctant to acknowledge its gay population. Last year in Krakow, Poland's largest gay group, the Campaign Against Homophobia, staged its March for Tolerance, the first such march in the city. In spite of death threats, almost 1,500 people turned out for the event. But as soon as it reached the landmark Wawel Castle, the parade was attacked by 300 members of a rightwing group called the League of Polish Families, armed with stones, bottles, and bags of acid. The march planned for neighboring Warsaw was canceled soon after. The late, great pope only exacerbated the situation with inflammatory statements that labeled homosexuality "an intrinsic moral evil." I can't help but wonder how my play will be received in this environment.

I get my first unnerving clue when I check into my hotel. "My partner, David, will be arriving later this week," I tell the clerk. She frowns. "Ask him to check in here at the desk when he does," she requests sternly. "Why is that necessary?" I ask. "So we can put an extra folding bed in the room," she answers. When I say, "That won't be necessary," she admonishes me: "We would prefer it."

My forays into Polish gay clubs aren't much more encouraging. One bar touted as "gay" features photo montages of bare-breasted women on the wall and a decidedly mixed crowd. When I do stumble upon a watering hole that seems to cater exclusively to gay men, it's in a dark, crowded basement without a sign, accessible only by knocking insistently on the door. I ask a few locals about the scene, and they tell me--with admirable optimism--that it's growing. But when I press them further about their personal lives, most of them confess that they aren't even out at work, and fewer still have confided in their families.

En route to opening night, I'm a cacophony of nerves. On the street, David and I are reluctant to hold hands, something we routinely do back home in New York. I'm wearing a favorite sweater, unabashedly loud, with oversize red silk cuffs. The glances it gets on these rustic streets are more murderous than any it might garner from the fashionistas in Milan.

The theater, however, is packed. Is it because Broadway imports are a rarity in Krakow, or is it because the subject matter of the play itself is exerting some forbidden, hungry thrall? Maybe--just maybe--a closed subject will be cracked open tonight. Audience members are squirming in their seats, fingering their programs in anticipation.

When our star, Jefferson Mays, takes the stage, he's greeted by an expectant hush. He begins his first speech, speaking in Charlotte's measured, hypnotic tones as his words are translated in supertitles overhead. His comic lines are greeted with unnaturally loud laughter, we never got guffaws like this back home! …