Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s “Draw the Circle” Tells a Story of Transitioning With Admirable Candor

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in DRAW THE CIRCLE.

In Draw the Circle, a deeply moving one-man work now in its New York premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen tells the story of his transition not through his own eyes but through the perspectives of those around him: loved ones, friends from high school, doctors and nurses, members of his trans support group. First produced in August 2016 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the play is a brilliant intervention into the constrained and prescriptive autobiographical narratives available to queer and trans kids growing up Muslim in post–9-11 America. In writing himself out of his life, Deen enables viewers to access a profound empathy not only for his journey, but also for the struggles of his family and his partner to accept his sexual orientation and gender identity.

Over the course of ninety minutes, Deen takes on a variety of crucial personas — his mother, his father, his partner Molly, his niece Rabia — in addition to the more minor, fleeting ones listed above. Under the skillful direction of Chay Yew (who also did the set design), Deen’s own presence is symbolized throughout by the only object that appears onstage: a white wooden chair that the performer, who also wrote the play, moves around as he toggles from character to character. As Deen inhabits the voices of his friends and family, each individual’s name is projected onto the back wall of the stage. Shifts in persona are also delineated through performance (intonation, accent, posture, positioning), changes in lighting (Mary Louise Geiger), and sometimes sound (Matt M. Nielson).

For many queer and trans Americans who have grown up in Muslim families, storytelling is a business fraught with risk. Those who speak too openly about the complexities of navigating family, faith, and culture can be perceived as reifying Orientalist stereotypes about Muslim families, including that they are homophobic and anti-woman. But there is also a price to be paid for those who dress up their experiences in anticipation of white consumption, sweeping under the rug the challenges they’ve faced in coming out or transitioning. The pain and hardship is real, too, as it is for so many people who come out. Moreover, while reporters and other media-makers are sometimes eager to interview queer/trans Muslims about their lives, they are also quick to reduce these stories to catchphrases or one-liners. After the Orlando shooting nearly two years ago, journalists flooded the inboxes of LGBTQ Muslim activists with interview requests, then turned around stories about how community members were trapped between their two opposing (and, presumably, irreconcilable) selves. “So many articles began to divide our identities as if they were not inhabited in the same bodies,” lamented one queer Muslim at the time.

It’s important to note that Deen does not describe himself as Muslim, or identify as part of the LGBTQ Muslim community. But he’s still penned a play whose very structure troubles the static, flat stereotype of the queer Muslim that we usually encounter in media. We aren’t shielded from Deen’s mother’s shame, or disappointment, or frustration at his transition. We hear it in her own words and voice, along with the reality of what she stands to lose: the respect of family and friends, the future she imagined. Yet we also see her real concern for his welfare and her profound anxieties about his emotional well-being, as when she calls to check up on him after his top surgery. “The worst thing is to imagine your child alone in life,” she notes, fearing the kid she brought into the world will never be married.

Deen struggles with his family’s initial rejection of his choices, but the overwhelming feeling he expresses toward them isn’t anger but love. “I break their hearts,” he tells Molly after he discloses to his parents that he’s getting surgery, tears streaming down his face. Deen’s relationship with his mother and father is wracked with the tensions familiar to so many second-generation immigrant youth: what the extended family or local Indian community will think; a child’s duty to his/her parents; diverging views on the nature of love, happiness, and self-fulfillment. “I will whisper ‘I love you’ quietly, over and over again, that it might be carried on the breeze above your battlements, through your defenses, and with luck, perhaps it will lodge in your heart,” Deen writes in a letter to his mother, read by Molly at the end of the play. “If I say it enough, gently, unarmed and still, perhaps someday your heart will be healed.”

But while Deen’s relationship with his family forms one of the core themes of Draw the Circle, it isn’t the only one. We travel with Deen through the other defining moments of his life, too: His time in a psychiatric hospital; his struggle to determine if and how to transition; his partner’s mourning of the butch dyke she fell in love with, along with her ultimate acceptance of the person he has become. “If she didn’t call, if she got home late, you worry when you’re with a butch,” says Molly of their life together pre-transition. “I don’t worry as much anymore. No one knows. Look at him!” But Molly struggles to adjust to being read as a straight couple. “He has a choice, to tell people he’s trans or not, not like when he was butch — and the choice is his, not mine. How fucked-up is it that I wish people did know?”

In effectively interplaying the two figures onstage — his physical body (in performance) and his true, phantom self (evoked by that lonesome chair) — Deen brings an impressive depth of feeling. Toward the middle of the evening, he takes on the voice of the man who raped him. “American women, mon, they must say ‘no’ or dey feel ashame’, dey do not own dare bodies but dey ant to be taken,” he says, staring back at the chair. Shortly thereafter, he adopts the voice of Molly as she talks about what it’s like when he has a flashback or disassociates. “It’s the worst feeling, to be face-to-face with the person you love, telling them, hold on, stay with me, I’m right here, and then watch her let go and fade before your eyes.”

“The only way I could bring her back from that was to get her to follow the sound of my voice,” Molly adds, as she cradles the chair in her lap and breaks into song. We watch as Deen examines himself from afar, trapped in a moment of fear and vulnerability — a moment of self-exposure so raw and naked it took me aback. At a time when the words queertrans, and Muslim automatically elicit a series of assumptions, racist stereotypes, and preordained narratives, Deen has managed to pull off a feat that is expansive and nuanced, one that encompasses many (sometimes contravening) truths and realities without sacrificing a sense of emotional wholeness and generosity. For that, he should be applauded.

 

Read the full story by Aviva Stahl from The Village Voice here.

Stage Review: Gamm Lightens up Chekhov in Pawtucket

Rachel Dulude and Tony Estrella in The Gamm production of Curt Columbus’s “Uncle Vanya.” (Photo by Peter Goldberg)

PAWTUCKET — Curt Columbus believes there is a mind-set he calls the “Chekhov Industrial Complex,” which he avoids when translating the great writer’s pieces from Russian to English. When directing his works, he actually pushes quite far in the other direction.

The latter dramatic shift can be seen on stage at the Gamm Theatre where Columbus’s translation of “Uncle Vanya” is now playing. As translator and director of the production, Columbus defies the “Complex” by creating an almost lighthearted approach to the sad tale. Instead of drab and depressing scenes and woe-is-me characters, he has worked with the Gamm company, led by Artistic Director Tony Estrella in the lead role, to create moments of laughter and music, light and even joy.

Vanya finds his world turned upside down when his late sister’s husband, a college professor, shows up on the country estate Vanya has worked his entire life with his new, much younger wife and a host of unreasonable demands. The professor’s announcement that he plans to sell the estate given to him by Vanya’s father as his sister’s dowry leaves Vanya and the others living on the estate shocked.

There are fights and weapons are drawn, there are tears and emotional breakdowns. Chekhov is notoriously long-winded and the conversations and dialogues in “Uncle Vanya” are no exception. But the set, sprawled over three levels on towering scaffolding, and the staging of the scenes are so cleverly executed that the pace of the two-hour show is manageable.

Columbus’ interpretation of the story detours around much of the drudgery. It is still there — Vanya, his niece and the professor’s daughter Sonya, Waffles and Marina work hard and rest little, their hard work funding the professor’s urban lifestyle. The professor is cantankerous and egotistical, leaving his young wife Yelena miserable much of the time. And, Sonya finds herself pining for the local doctor who barely notices her and drowns his own sorrows in copious amounts of vodka.

No, it is not a happy story line, but Columbus infuses lightness, often at unusual moments and, more than once, teetering very close to the edge of meaningfulness. The show, for example, opens with music and simple numbers played on accordions, guitars and xylophones throughout. Perhaps the acoustic version of Soft Cell’s 1980s song “Tainted Love” is a bit much, but the inclusion of music is a nice diversion and transitional tool…

Read the full article by Susan McDonald for the Sun Chronicle here.

‘Draw the Circle’ Puts a Surprising Frame on a Transgender Story

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in “Draw the Circle.” (Stan Barouh)

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen has a good story to tell in “Draw the Circle,” and a fresh way to tell it. It’s an autobiographical solo show about gender transition in which he plays his parents, his classmates, his doctors and his girlfriend – everyone but himself.

By the end he’s fully there, along with projected statistics about the rising U.S. murder rate of transgender people. This activist theater is molded from the raw material of being born to traditional Muslim Indian immigrants to the United States and assigned female; before the show starts, we see a photo of Deen as a young girl.

This 80-minute piece is running in rep at the Atlas Performing Arts Center with another hot-button solo act, Dan Hoyle’s “The Real Americans” – a survey of strangers Hoyle met during fact-finding road trips through the heartland. Hoyle may be a slightly more limber mimic than Deen, but Deen’s tale unspools more naturally.

Deen’s problem for years was feeling invisible (and worse), which is how we experience him as he takes on the voices of the people who give us his history of gender transition. Dressed in jeans and a blue T-shirt, he chronicles, with surprising empathy, not just what it was like to slowly, painfully come to terms with transition, but what it was like for loved ones who shunned everything about it. The father’s a card able to tell jokes, but the mother is sheer distress and shame. She frets about what the relatives back in India will think and laments the daughter – Shireen was Deen’s name, we are told – she feels she has lost.

Looking out, looking in: Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in “Draw the Circle.” (Stan Barouh)

Viewpoints come from a wide-eyed niece and, perhaps most poignantly, from Molly, who fell in love with Shireen and was then challenged by Shireen’s evolution to Deen. The names of each character are helpfully projected on the back wall; Deen does good work switching vocal patterns and postures, but he’s more compassionate than chameleonic in his characterizations.

Director Chay Yew – a playwright himself, and artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater – keeps the lean performance percolating briskly. It’s all about the information: the stage is a bare white square floor furnished with only a plain white chair. There is nothing else but the names on the screen, and the narrative.

Trans playwrights are still emerging, which puts Deen’s show in the vanguard here (and let’s credit Mosaic Theater for boldly expanding its repertoire all the time). The story’s framework is simple yet striking, and more than a novelty: it’s an apt, big-hearted way to puzzle together many pieces of Deen’s journey. “Draw the Circle” does not sugarcoat his despair or incidents of violence, yet it rather amazingly reaches back to retrieve people who easily could have been cut out for life. The wrathful moment confronting us with the ongoing violence against trans people does not define the tone of this personable, entirely approachable show. Inarguably, though, it’s that flicker of wrath that gives the piece its purpose.

Draw the Circle , written and performed by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. Directed by Chay Yew. Lights, Mary Louise Geiger and E-Hui Woo; set, Chay Yew; sound design, Matthew M. Nielson. Through Dec. 24 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets $35-$65. Call 202-399-7993 or visit mosaictheater.org.

 

Review by Nelson Pressley for The Washington Post.

Review: In ‘1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson),’ cold-calling for a loser

“1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson)” at Jackalope Theatre, with Hillary Horvath and Bryce Gangel.

Did you vote for John B. Anderson in 1980?

If you were of age and followed the advice of this newspaper, which endorsed the moderate congressman from Illinois in the Republican primary over Ronald Reagan, you would have placed your trust in the man the Tribune said “best represents the qualities needed to win nomination and election — and having won those to be a strong, effective president.”

But Anderson lost that primary to Reagan and ran instead as an independent candidate, a move too quixotic for the Tribune, which subsequently offered its then-customary support for the Republican nominee, in this case the governor of California. Anderson started strong in the general election but tanked. He eventually got less than 7 percent of the vote.

So what was it like working in one of his campaign offices?

That’s the question posed by “1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson),” a highly enjoyable and mercifully unpredictable world-premiere play by the experienced scribe Patricia Cotter, open now for voting at the Jackalope Theatre on Chicago’s North Side. On one level, “1980” is a bit like a sitcom of losers, a kind of “Superior Donuts” or a “Parks and Rec,” only set in a regional Boston office of a failing indie campaign.

You have Brenda (Evelyn Gaynor), the tough office manager with the rough personal life; Robin (Bryce Gangel), the fickle Ivy League slummer; and Kathleen (Hillary Horvath), the naive Southie intern who hates cold-calling but whose coming-of-age story is at the heart of the show. And then there’s Will (Sheldon Brown), the man sent from Chicago by Anderson himself to beef up the Boston operations. A forlorn hope, as it turns out, although he does come to better know himself.

Some of the fun here — and this play really is a good time, especially for political junkies — comes from some “Mad Men”-style anachronistic throwbacks to 1980s mores, replete with Kathleen as the Peggy Olson of the story. But although I think the piece still needs more narrative drive, Cotter is also writing about race and gender in the early 1980s and the era’s mostly flailing attempts to create viable coalitions that might one day stand up to the white male establishment. It’s actually quite a hopeful play, despite its setting amid failure.

All of the performances are strong and generous in director Kaiser Ahmed’s carefully toned production, a zippy show that embraces farce but also personal truth. But the piece belongs to the superb Horvath, who is both very funny as she droops around the office and, as all hope vanishes, exceptionally poignant.

The credo of the office: “Most polls say that if people believe John Anderson can win, he will win.” You don’t doubt the truth of that inconvenient paradox, the Achilles’ heel of every third-party candidate. But it is Horvath’s Kathleen, the character who appears to know the least, who actually knows the most about Anderson’s inevitable doom after she finally sees the candidate. “He looked so boring,” she says, “as if he was in black and white and the rest of the world in color.”

Enter Reagan and a sunrise and the future.

Review: “1980 (Or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson)”
When: Through Dec. 2
Where: Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $5-$30 at www.jackalopetheatre.org

Read the full article from the Chicago Tribune here.