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A full house in UNC's Kenan Theatre was greeted by PlayMakers Repertory Company's Producing Artistic Director, Vivienne Benesch, as she welcomed us all to PlayMakers’ opening night of the 2016-17 season. The show on tap was playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen's world premiere of Draw the Circle, an autobiographical one-man show in which we learn the unique intricacies of growing up in the wrong body. Deen, himself transgender, tells of his life growing up in a family of Muslims from India, with a devout pair of parents, a precocious younger sister, and a world that feels oddly out of sorts. A young woman through his teens, Deen uses multiple characterizations to show the transformation he went through to finally face the world as a man, and the incredible support he received from a loyal and loving partner throughout the process.
Deen is a Brooklyn-based theatre artist, self-employed since 2006, with a repertoire of three complete works for theatre on his website: Draw the Circle; Where Children Play: the Story of Tank and Horse (which garners a mention within DTC); and Shut Up! Also showing is a play in process, 1984. Deen has worked with a variety of theatre companies, most notably the New York Theatre Workshop, which has named him a 2050 Fellow. Deen brings Draw the Circle to PlayMakers’ PRC2 second stage series under the direction of Chay Yew, a wide-ranging director of theatre and opera across the country and the globe. The show is stage managed by Charles K. Bayang, now in his ninth season with PlayMakers.
Draw the Circle shows a crispness of presentation that indicates many years of development. Utilizing a near-subliminal lighting program and one straight-backed chair, Deen transports us through several different worlds, from the childhood home and the family she grew up with, to the present day and the life he now shares with a partner who has been with him throughout this long and sometimes tortuous journey. But Deen takes us on this trip with a multitude of voices that, interestingly enough, do not actually include him. Of all the people we meet in this work, the character of Deen himself, known within the play as Shereen, never speaks. All the information we glean about Shereen and her long, complicated and individual course comes from those who are growing with her. All the characters Deen plays do not include him. In this play, he is the one talked about.
Deen introduces us to Shereen at a young age as we meet her mother, father, and younger sister, Rabia. As Shereen grows into her teens, she also grows more apart from the rest of her family, so much so that, when she finally graduates high school and goes off to college, she becomes almost unrecognizable to her family. She shaves off all her hair, and begins to dress in unisex clothing, which makes her hard to pinpoint, gender-wise. By this time, Shereen has come to understand the limitations and unforgiving boundaries of her gender, and her thoughts have turned to suicide. Alone in a strange town in Connecticut, in a sad and dilapidated Motel 8, she writes a letter to her family of her intent. Leaving it on the television, she leaves the room, and when she returns she finds a maid, Lucia, who has found the letter and read it. But Lucia tells us that Shereen takes the letter back; she has heard God tell her to give this life one more try.
In short order, Shereen meets Molly while performing Geoffrey in A Lion in Winter. Molly becomes infatuated with Shereen and fears she will never see her again after the production is over, so she emboldens herself and invites Shereen over to her room. It is clear that this is a monumental connection for them both, and they begin a journey together that takes them through ten years, Shereen's transformation, and a growing number of Thanksgivings with Shereen's — to say the least — dubious family.
Deen performs over two dozen characters in the course of his play, each of whom speaks to us directly. We meet the outspoken younger sister, Rabia, who thinks that you don't get to choose what gender you are! We meet the mother, a pious Muslim woman who longs for the life she should have had with a daughter, who would have cared for her in her older years and tended her body after death. This is what a daughter does. Even after ten years, Mother longs for the day, someday, when God will give her back her daughter. She even wonders when, so often, her son tells her he loves her. How can he love her and do this to her? “I gave birth to a daughter. But now I have a son.” With the help of Molly and many different support groups, Shereen becomes a man. It is a tortuous process, even more so for Molly, who started off in a lesbian relationship with Shereen. She could never have imagined that she would now be married to a man. But she is committed to this tortured soul who struggles so mightily to be what he must be. So, even if his parents cannot learn to accept him (and he wonders if his mother ever will), he has done what must be done.
As is always the case with a PRC2 production, there was a Q&A after the show. On this night, Deen and Benesch were joined onstage by a member of the North Carolina General Assembly House of Representatives, Graig Meyer, representing House District 50 (parts of Durham and Orange counties). As Benesch led the discussion, talk of course turned to HB2. I was struck by the acceptance by this audience of a transgender individual; by the fact that Meyer could relate to Deen in that he, too, is in a relationship with his daughter where they are currently estranged; and by the seemingly-crazy but now-accurate big deal that the student bathrooms in the Performing Arts Center will now be gender neutral. Even in the face of HB2, life continues to evolve. I noted with a wry smile that Deen's show concludes with a spoken quote by North Carolina's Governor McCrory. It did not paint him in a very positive light.
With Draw the Circle, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen has created an entire world of a family with flesh and blood problems who struggle mightily to right them, of a place where one's very identity is called into question, and of a life created with a love that will withstand even this. It is a world of tremendous pressure, but also of tremendous promise. Deen tells us within the playbill that he has taken his title from a poem he heard in Virginia by Edwin Markham:
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle and took him in!
Draw the Circle continues through Sunday, August 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.