In downtown Manhattan on Waverly Place sits a small theatre with a dark red front entrance that could be easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. This is the Rattlestick theatre, a theatre dedicated to showcasing original plays. Last Sunday was the closing performance of a show there called Draw The Circle, written by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. Deen is one of the many transgender playwrights beginning to break ground in theatre, joining alongside playwrights such as Basil Kreimendahl and Jess Barbagallo. A member of New Dramatists, his other plays include Tank and Horse, The Betterment Society, and The Shaking Earth.
Draw The Circle is a one-man show, starring the playwright himself telling the story of his transition from female to male. But instead of him telling the story in his own words, he used the words of those around him, such as his parents, his wife, and his friends.
Deen, who grew up in a traditional Muslim household, began the play with the reactions to when he cut off his long hair, a move that shocked and upset his parents who believed “girls should have their hair long.” He spoke as both his mother and father, the latter being the one who by the end of the show seemed to be the more accepting one. Throughout the show, his parents continued to be outraged and hurt with each step Deen took towards transition. His mother struggled with losing the opportunities to go through the religious traditions she’d looked forward to doing with her “daughter.” She spoke of how it didn’t sound like “her” when they spoke on the phone after he started hormones. At one point, the mother mentions how before she’d hand the phone to Deen’s father when he called, he’d tell her “I love you”, which she felt were empty words.
Both parents also were concerned about the shame that he would bring if family back in India were to find out. At one point, his mother tearfully declares how his grandmother could never see him again; she could not handle his transition.
One other person that he spoke as was Molly, whom he’d eventually marry. The two met in college during a reading of a play. By then, Deen was presenting as “butch.” The two fell in love, and though she was one of the most supportive people as he began to transition, Molly too struggled with Deen’s changes. When telling of when he decided to start HRT, she yelled out, “Maybe he would’ve stayed a butch if people just used the freakin’ pronoun he asked them to use!” As time went by, Molly’s coming to terms with the “woman” she fell in love with transitioning to a man meant her realizing it’s not his body, but everything inside that made him who she loves.
The monologues that were most admirable were the ones he did as his five-year-old niece, Rabia, as she struggled to understand why the family was so upset with her uncle. Including her voice in the show displays how children have such a simplistic view of the world, and how the adults in their lives can so easily shape their beliefs by explaining things in one way or another.
"THROUGHOUT THE COUNTLESS MONOLOGUES, HE WOULD STEP INTO SQUARES OF LIGHT AS THEY LIT UP ON STAGE AND USED THE CHAIR AS HIS ONLY PROP."
Throughout the countless monologues, he would step into squares of light as they lit up on stage and used the chair as his only prop. During the talkback after the show, he explained that "minimalizing" the stage gave a more “me”-focus; less distraction allowed the audience to give their attention fully to the actor and the story. The intimacy and vulnerability of the story needed that minimal set. I doubt it would’ve worked with a fuller set.
Deen also spoke of how he felt that by removing himself from the narrative and let others speak their own words, he would resist the urge to “defend” himself. This also showed the “fluidity and vulnerability” of others, as well as give them full backstories, which is rarely seen in transition stories that are told through a form of art. In most stories, the people around the focus of the story are portrayed as “the good guy” or “the bad guy.” Deen’s approach was a reminder that no matter how supportive or unsupportive a person is, they are human and are way more than just a one-word feeling towards the main character.
Even more so, it made me think about how the point of view from others is not something we normally concern ourselves with as we transition. While the focus of transitioning is our own selves, we should always remember our family and friends are also going through a transition of sorts. A major way they saw you is suddenly being turned upside down; they need time to figure out what’s going on and maybe mourn the loss of what they thought they knew. (That’s not to say that their reactions or feelings should ever be a deciding factor in whether one transitions, nor does it excuse any abuse or abandonment.)
"HE AIMED FOR CREATING A SHOW ABOUT THE STRUGGLES OF PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIPS, AND HOW THE SYSTEM OF 'PUTTING PEOPLE IN BOXES' HURTS EVERYONE."
One thing he also mentioned during the talkback was that he wanted the play to be relatable to more situations than just gender transition. He aimed for creating a show about the struggles of parent-child relationships, and how the system of “putting people in boxes” hurts everyone. The play also talks about religion and faith, which can be a source of rejection for many transgender people, but for some it can also be a guiding light and way of healing. For Deen, his faith was something that saved his life in his darkest hour.
At the end of the show, Molly’s final monologue discussed how he experienced rejection from his old “circle” of people, he drew a new circle of supportive people. The play’s finale, which left the audience with a chill up their spine, was Deen standing silently as audio clips from debates on transgender-related issues played. Names of victims of transphobic homicide from last year and this year flashed on the screen behind him. He turned around slowly, took off his shirt, and turned back around to show his post-op chest before leaving his shirt on the chair center stage.
It is said that art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. Bringing our stories to the stage and being so vulnerable and candid as Deen did is an important way to do so. Because we’re so often cast out of our usual circles, maybe we as a community can draw our own circle in the world of theatre.