In Draw the Circle, now playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York, playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen tells the story of his transition by taking on the voices of his family and friends. Over the course of 90 minutes, Deen performs the central characters of his life—including his Muslim mother and father, and lesbian-identified partner—as they struggle to accept his gender identity. Deen never performs as himself; his body is instead represented by a white chair, the only object that appears on the otherwise empty stage. It’s a funny, emotionally charged and deeply vulnerable work, in which Deen explores not only his familial and romantic conflicts but the violence and trauma he’s endured.
Deen's work has been presented or developed at institutions including New York's Public Theater, and the New York Theater Workshop, and has received awards including a 2017 Kilroy List Honorable Mention, and a James Baldwin Award.
I spoke with Deen about the play, audience reactions, and the state of trans-inclusion in the theater world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Stahl: When did you first decide to write about transitioning? What prompted that idea?
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen: Well, I transitioned, so it was a life experience that I was having that so many people were unfamiliar with. I really started writing this play in earnest in 2009 when I was in the Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group, and I remember my mentor said, "You have to write a play about your transition," and I remember I thought, I don't want to. I realized I didn't want to because I was scared of it—and I feel like my job is to move towards things that scare me.
As a writer, I was going be inhabiting all these characters who are frustrated at Deen or angry at Deen. Probably a part of me that would've liked to have closed the door and never thought about some of that stuff again. But I also know that sometimes, in challenging my own fears and walking there, I discover something that maybe opens something up and makes it less frightening for me in the end.
When you decided to write about your transition, did you immediately envision it as a one-man play?
Early on I felt like it should probably be a one-person play, and I imagine there's two reasons for this. One, the intimacy of a solo play is so different and specific, so the relationship you're having with the audience is very intimate and I felt like the story was very intimate, and so those two things went together well.
I think also I was coming out of grad school at the time, and my thesis play had a butch, South Asian woman in it. And it was really hard to find actors to be in those roles, especially back then. And so I can't help but think part of that decision might have been thinking, "I don't know how we'll find actors to be in this, I might have to be in it."
And did you always imagine yourself to have a ghost-like presence in the show, present but not there?
I had the vision of not being in the piece early on. There was one draft, I think my second or third draft when I experimented putting myself back in, and I hated it, and so I took it back out. I found two things. One is that I already lived this journey, and so for me to write it from my point of view felt redundant, I wasn't discovering anything. But to write it from the points of view of the other people that struggled with it was an act of discovery for me as a writer as well. In that one draft where I was a character, I could tell that every time my character spoke, it felt like I was defending myself, it felt like I was trying to prove something to the audience, or serving my own needs instead of being true to the writing, or being true to the emotion of it. Were there any audience responses that were particularly memorable to you?
There was one audience response that was really moving to me. After the show, a mother spoke, and I don't know how old her kid was, I think they were going through a transition, or they had just transitioned, and she started to cry. And she said that she felt it was the first time she felt like her struggle had been [portrayed,] that she had seen it, and she felt kind of understood in it. And how she wanted to help her child through this, but it was hard. It was hard for her. She just felt like some part of her could relax and let go, and be there with us and have tears run down her face, I guess 'cause it felt safe to do so. And I often think that in some way, when parents are in the audience, they say things to me that my own parents could not have said, probably, in that moment, and I can respond to them in ways that I could not have spoken to my parents at that time. I feel like in some ways I'm a conduit. Those parents are talking to other people in the audience. And everyone in the audience is somebody's kid. And so, they're starting to have a conversation with each other, maybe conversations they can't have with their own kids or parents, but they're able to start having it with each other here. I know this show gets talked about as the transgender story and it has specifics of that, and it has specifics of an immigrant family and parents. But to me, at its heart, it really is about parents and children. And how hard it is to be both. Let’s talk about trans-inclusion or exclusion in the theater world. How do you think it is now? Do you think it's getting better, and what do you think needs to change?
When I first wrote this play, certainly people were self-producing plays about trans folks and people of color, and trans people of color, and that was happening, but it was happening very under the radar. And in mainstream theater there really wasn't much. And then in the past few years, there have been more, but sadly, a lot of these plays have trans characters in them but are not written by trans writers. And I'm not one to necessarily police and say, "Oh, you can only write something if you're from that community," but I do think that if you do write that, you have an obligation to really do your work and go beyond stereotypes and really question yourself and I don't always think that those plays have done that successfully. I think there is a strength in the story that trans writers tell about their communities and their world, because there is nuance and complication and authenticity to a degree that is just lived. And it is hard to compete with that. But I do think, certainly now, there are more trans writers getting produced, but are those trans writers mostly trans-masculine? Yes, mostly, right now. Are they mostly white? Yes, mostly white, so far. Actors really come into this too. Who gets to play trans characters and are trans actors getting to be seen outside playing trans characters? Are casting directors able to see us as more than just one small piece of our identity? Anything else you want to add?
Whether I'm acting or writing, I can't judge my characters. I have to really understand their back stories and where they come from. And so I think there's a way in which it's very hard for me to encounter the world without also imagining what people's backstories are that bring them to a moment or to a decision. I personally find the nature of our social discourse—which I think can get very right or wrong and black and white—and especially on social media, we're not looking at each other. It's disheartening because it feels like sometimes we are made an "other" by people who would like to take our rights away from us, but I feel like sometimes we respond by then making a whole other group of people an "other" and it feels dehumanizing to me. I'm always hopeful that part of what theater does is really make that story so complicated that it's hard to say, "us" and "them." It’s just "us." I hope that theater helps people embrace the mess of it, 'cause I'm always very suspicious of the super easy simple answers of right and wrong.