Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s journey towards self-acceptance and empowerment — coming out first to himself, then to his traditional Indian Muslim family — was marked by extreme challenges, including a bout with suicidal depression and a harrowing sexual assault at the hands of a cis straight man. Like many artists, the proud trans man, managed to heal by turning to his art. In his outstanding solo play, Draw the Circle, currently at Mosaic Theater in a production directed by the highly esteemed Chay Yew, Deen explores the struggle of his transition with a unique slant.
Performing an impressive array of characters, based on his real-life circle of family, friends, his partner, and even his rapist, Deen puts in perspective some universal truths to be mined from his intensely personal story. And yet, he never appears in the play as himself.
Deen and Yew create a world in which everyone from Deen’s 73-year-old father to his eight-year-old niece has a voice in depicting their collective experience of his transition. Employing only Deen’s voice and body to assume each character — with an assist from well-considered lighting, a few projected titles, and a single chair — Draw the Circle conveys a wealth of humanity, comedy, pain, and heart. And Deen credits his director for the play’s sparse, but entirely effective staging.
As the Brooklyn-based artist continues to develop future works with the New Dramatists theatre collective, and prepare for upcoming engagements of Draw the Circle in New York and Philadelphia, he took time to consider where he is now, and how far he and his family have come.
METRO WEEKLY: Something in the play that really hits home was a simple line of dialogue, “You worry when you’re with a butch.” The fear factor is something that you confront head-on, dealing with your own sexual assault. And also performing the character who perpetrates the assault. Why the choice of performing everyone in the circle around you, but not you?
MASHUQ MUSHTAQ DEEN: A couple of reasons. Artistically, if I’m gonna write a play I’m gonna be with this play for years. It takes a very long time from writing a play to getting onstage, and you’re with these characters for a long time. And I felt like I had already lived it, so me just putting it down on paper felt redundant. Like, what was I gonna learn from it?
It was really interesting to me to follow the journeys of these other people and see their struggles. And I did understand things that I hadn’t before. For instance, I always had lived in this place where I thought my parents are ashamed of me, and it really hurt and it pissed me off and it’s all these things that enter the writing of the play. [But] I realized that my parents were also really — maybe more so — were more afraid for me, and were trying to protect me in the ways that they knew how, and those ways hurt. But it didn’t mean that they weren’t trying to protect me. They’re Muslims, immigrants, in this country. They don’t tell people. They don’t march in parades and tell people. That’s what they know. So I learned that.
MW: But, in a sense, because you’ve scripted them, these people are still being judged. How have they responded to it?
DEEN: I mean, it’s always through me the filter, right? So I’ve chosen what words to put in their mouths. But I hope that if I’ve done my job as a writer that there’s no bad guy, and I hope that I was harder on myself than I was on everybody else. And I do hope that you come away from the play really feeling for, and loving, my parents. Not feeling like, “They were bad people. They treated him wrong.” I want you to feel like, “God, they like really came a long way from where they started and that’s kind of amazing,” even though maybe they didn’t get all the way there by the end of the play.
But it is true, I’m the writer. I get to be God in this project. I make all the final decisions. But I have done my best, I think, to really live in their experience and be as truthful as I can. And my family hasn’t seen this play, so I don’t know what they think.
MW: What about your partner? Is she portrayed in the character of Molly in the show?
DEEN: Her actual name’s Liz. But yeah, that’s her and she’s seen it many, many times, and she actually gave me her journals from the time of when I was transitioning, and so I used her poem. Also, [Molly’s] last monologue about how we’re gonna grow old together and parent some children, and children change. That is lifted mostly from her journals.
She’s really supportive of it. The thing that she always says that annoys her is that when she’s in the audience, people will say, “Oh, my God. You’re so amazing. How did you stay at it?” And she finds that a really frustrating question, as if it’s like she was doing a bit of charity for me. And she’ll always say, “You know, I always knew I wasn’t gonna leave. I just had to sort of come to terms with what it meant for me.” And I didn’t know that. I thought she was for sure gonna leave, but she said she was never gonna leave. That wasn’t ever part of her process.
So she’s seen it. Her parents have seen it multiple times. My brother-in-law, who’s depicted in the play, he’s seen it and loves it. I think it would be really hard for my family, though, on multiple levels. One, my parents don’t know about the rape, and so I would have to sit down and talk to them, and I don’t want them to find out in a crowded theater. And it’s a little too close to home for them, they said, “You know we’re proud of you and we’re glad it’s out in the world, and people should see it, but we’re not gonna see this.”
MW: Have you had reaction from other parents who have seen the show?
DEEN: I had a parent write to me. She said, after the play — she saw it with her son who was 15 or 16 — they went away and had a long conversation about what does it mean to want your parents’ acceptance? What does it mean to be your own person? Are you afraid of disappointing people, this and that? And I thought, that’s the best compliment, that you would go away and have this conversation that I bet most parents and kids just don’t have. I mean, who wants to disappoint their parents?
MW: But you also want to know that your choices can be okay.
DEEN: And that they would love you. That they said it was unconditional, so that means like, “Whoever I am. Whatever’s truthful, you’ll still love me, right?”
MW: Do you consider coming out an ongoing thing? Or is there a moment of, “I did it. I’ve made it to the top of this mountain.”
DEEN: Well, I think there’s coming out to yourself and then there’s coming out to the world around you. And I think, in terms of my sexuality, I felt like coming out to myself, it was like the light bulb went off and I was like, “Oh. That’s what I am.” I hadn’t realized it for a really long time, even though I think many people around me had. I figured it out.
But I think with the gender stuff it was harder. One, because I really fought it. I mean, I had been assaulted. I knew many people who had been assaulted and I was really afraid I would become one of these bad men. I could not face that for a long time. There were lots of signs over a decade of the slow progression there.
And then, even when I think I did understand that I was transgender, I was like, “Okay, but butches just are inherently transgender, so I don’t have to do anything, right?” And then it was like, once you’d opened the door to see something about yourself, I wanted to close it and I couldn’t close the door again. And I can only imagine a part of that was because I thought I would lose friends. I thought I would lose my family. I didn’t know how dangerous it was gonna be. I remembered the Brandon Teena thing when it happened. I remember working on that documentary before the film came out. I was like, “I’m gonna get murdered in the bathroom.” Like this is what my life was gonna be.
And this person that I love dearly is gonna leave me, because every story I’d ever heard is that if you transition, your partner will leave. But then I kept, I think, backing myself into a corner. I keep getting to this place where it’s, “Well, I can kill myself or I could try this thing which seems really scary. I guess I’ll try the thing, because I can kill myself later.” Like, “I might as well.” And I feel like that’s the way I kind of forced myself to make the decision.
MW: Take a baby step.
DEEN: Yeah. And sometimes people say, “You’re so brave,” and I was like, “It doesn’t feel brave.” I just felt like I put myself in a position where I had no choice, and then I just said, “Alright. Well, we’ll see how this goes because if not, I’ll just kill myself and that will be that.”
And then, in the end, people surprised me. My friends surprised me. And my family did not surprise me. But they took a long time, and then eventually they came around, but it took a long time. But [Liz] was great and stayed with me. And her family was great.
MW: How has this show evolved since you premiered it, and do you think it’s going to continue to evolve?
DEEN: Since the first reading back in 2010, we’ve changed some things, but not in the last few years. It’s pretty much set the way it is. The one thing we changed this year, besides little dramaturgical tweaks here and there for clarity, was the scrolling list of names at the end [of murdered trans individuals]. I mean, just to know that the last three years, every year has been worse than the last. And 2017 is already worse than 2016. We’re not finished with it yet. And I think if I make a change before New York, it’ll probably be to update that 2017 list, because we’ve already lost two more since we started the show, in at least the three weeks since I put that list together.
MW: Do you feel that the high incidence of sexual assault and harassment that trans men and women face is getting lost in this “Me Too” moment? Or is it being included?
DEEN: I don’t think so. I mostly feel like we’re actually segregating out into a women and men scenario, which for me, I find really difficult, because I feel like I’m both. But because now I’m in a man’s body, I feel like I should be quiet and not say anything.
MW: You feel culpable just being male?
DEEN: Yeah. I feel like we’re not critiquing the patriarchy. I mean, the thing is, I am not surrounded by those men, so I realize that when people are talking about those men, I literally don’t have them in my life, because I live in the theater world. I just don’t see these people. And so it’s very real. But I think we are using this brush to say all men. I wish there was some room for a nuanced conversation about the gray areas, and that there was some talking about sexual violence and harassment in general that men also face. The dichotomizing of men and women is leaving out lots of people who exist in the middle and who are also getting harassed all the time.
MW: You mentioned in the play, portraying Molly, that you want some way to let people know that, “We look like a straight couple, but we’re not.”
DEEN: We’re not. Neither of us ever identified as lesbian and neither of us ever identified as straight. We’re both interested in people. And it just so happens that the person that I’ve met is her.
Draw the Circle runs in repertory with The Real Americans through December 24 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $20 to $65. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2, or visit MosaicTheater.org.
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