Three years ago, Pat Rowe stood transfixed in a London bookstore, reading Lilly & Jaguar, a riveting biography chronicling the relationship between two lesbians in Nazi Germany. "I'm still shocked at the way that Jews and gays were forced to live," says Rowe, a former BBC Radio broadcaster and freelance writer for London's Guardian. "It became a stranglehold, and most of them perished."
Inspired, Rowe labored for the next two years on the script for Forbidden, a three-act drama loosely based on the bio, set in 1943 Berlin. The plot centers on Lilly Wust, who walks out on her husband, a Nazi officer, to shack up with Felice Schragenheim -- or "Jaguar," as Lilly called her -- a Jewish lesbian on the run from the Third Reich. Their relationship is fraught with danger. "German lesbians were sent to corrections centers to be reformed," says Rowe, whose Jewish grandparents migrated from Poland to England before World War II. "Some were even forced to have babies."
The play debuted last year at Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the audience, Rose Leininger, the artistic director of Red Hen Productions -- a Cleveland-based feminist-theater troupe -- was spellbound. Soon after, she asked for permission to stage the show. Rowe immediately agreed.
"It's taboo-breaking on all fronts, because Lilly was breaking taboos herself, and Felice was just struggling to survive," says Rowe, who'll be in town this week for the play's American premiere at Cleveland Black Box Theatre.
They kept their relationship in the closet, but half a century later, an 80-year-old Lilly broke her silence about the affair by sharing letters, diaries, and photos with a biographer. "I don't see it as a Holocaust play or a gay play," says Rowe. "I think of it as a love story. It's how two women can hold up against adversity in a world gone mad."