PlayMakers Repertory Company will kick off its 2016-17 season on Aug. 24-28 with the world premiere of Draw the Circle, an autobiographical one-man show about his female-to-male transition written and performed by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen and directed by Chay Yew. There will be a freewheeling talkback with the artists and selected subject-matter experts, following each performance of this provocative PRC2 production in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art.
On his website, Deen describes this intensely personal yet universal play as “The hilarious and deeply moving story of conservative Muslim mother at her wits’ end, a Muslim father who likes to tell jokes, and a queer American woman trying to make a good impression on her Indian in-laws. In a story about family and love and the things we do to be together, one immigrant family must come to terms with a child who defies their most basic expectations of what it means to have a daughter … and one woman will redefine the limits of unconditional love.”
“The story is autobiographical, so in a way, the story conceived me,” claims Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. “People ask, When did you ‘transition’?, as if it’s a point in time. It was more than a decade in the making — years of resisting, coming to terms, resisting again.”
He adds, “I finally decided to write about it, because I thought the story could do some good in the world, could help other people feel less alone than I felt. But when I began the telling, I realized I wasn’t as interested in my own journey, I had already lived through it. The exploration I could sustain — and writing for me is both exploration and a lengthy commitment, as plays can take years — was the journey of the other characters, those who loved me and didn’t want me to change. And certainly, writing the play also helped me to understand my family in a different way.
“While I was writing [Draw the Circle], I did a lot of research on solo shows,” Deen recalls. “I was most inspired by my friend and colleague Jessica Dickey’s piece, The Amish Project [– which is] a brilliant piece of theater, if you ever get to see it[.] In that play, she portrays all the characters around the Amish community; and through that negative space, if you will, the audience gets a much more complicated version of the heart and soul of this Amish community.
“As I was writing my own piece,” he explains, “I realized that I didn’t want to write myself into the play, even if this was an autobiographical piece; but through the negative space, I was still able to convey the trajectory of my journey as a transgender man. I worked extensively with my director Chay Yew, and we agreed that by leaving the character of Deen out, the audience could have this experience of watching a character talk about how frustrated they were by Deen, and also be looking right at Deen, who is the actor performing the monologue. I can’t say enough about Chay Yew’s dramaturgy as I developed the piece. I’m very grateful to him.”
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen adds, “The story is an intensely personal one, as you’ll see. I relied on my director, Chay Yew, the most — he is a brilliant dramaturg — in terms of pinpointing for me the places where the audience would need a little extra help to follow the story that I was trying to tell. In the early days, there were also workshops and constructive critiques with my colleagues. I wrote five separate versions of the play to get to this one (one of them even had a character that was Deen in the play — I hated that version). But still, this more than any other play came purely from my heart, my past, my memory.
“This production at PlayMakers is the world-premiere production of Draw the Circle,” says Deen. “Previously, there was a workshop production at InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia. There have been a number of readings, staged presentations, university and festival showings in the past few years. But with transgender issues more prominently in the news now — both for better and for worse — and major theaters, like PlayMakers, starting to look at trans stories that are written by trans writers, it seems as if the play and the sociopolitical moment are coming into alignment.
“The play begins with all the main characters — Molly, Father, Mother, even Rabia — all different degrees of anxious about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, which will be the first time Deen (who never appears as a character in the play) will see his family after a two-year exile. As Molly and Deen set out for Connecticut and this momentous reunion, we see through the other characters Deen’s painfully fraught journey to manhood as it transpires over more than 15 years.
“When I was doing readings of Draw the Circle,” Deen remembers, “I stood in front of a music stand with a stool next to me, and on the stool was a glass of water. So, when it came time to stage the piece, I remember asking Chay, where will my water go? And he replied, ‘There’s no water in this play.’ I still laugh thinking of that. And he’s right — the play moves fast, like a rollercoaster, and all you can do is hold on. Chay created a simple, elegant staging that allows the story to be lifted; it’s not about bells and whistles and props, it’s all about the characters and their relationships.”
In addition to playwright and performer Mashuq Mushtaq Deen and director Chay Yew, the creative team for this production Draw the Circle by UNC’s professional-theater-in-residence includes PRC producing artistic director PlayMakers Rep Vivienne Benesch, PRC production manager Michael Rolleri, lighting designer Dominic Abbenante, sound designers Anna Alex and Robert Wuss, and stage manager Charles K. Bayang.
“The set conceived by director Chay Yew is a very simple: a large white square on the floor (the playing area), a white chair which is both prop and scene partner, and some simple projections,” says Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. “[The play] opens with a photo of Deen as a child, when he was a young girl and his name was Shireen.”
Deen adds, “Because this is a solo performance, one in which I move rapidly from character to character, lighting is what helps us transition so quickly. It’s not complicated, but there are a lot of lighting cues.”
“There are no costumes,” says Deen. “I have a simple outfit which I wear for the duration of the show.”
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen says, “Sometimes, Draw the Circle gets labeled a ‘trans play,’ but I don’t think it is. It’s fundamentally a story about family. A story about parents and children. You don’t have to know anything about ‘trans issues’ to see this play. And at the same time, there is a lot happening in the State of North Carolina and elsewhere that will directly affect the lives of transgender people; and you will leave this play understanding a little more about what the experience of being transgender is like.
“But most of all,” Deen says, “there are no bad guys in this play. There are people who are struggling to love in a world that is changing around them, and sometimes the struggle is the love, and I will do my best to bring all of that struggle to the stage … and you are welcome to bring it to the theater.”
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 23rd Chapel Hill, NC WCHL/Chapelboro.com interview with playwright/performer Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/we-drew-a-circle-playmakers-opens-season; and Aug. 17th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/draw-the-circle/Event?oid=5044627.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents DRAW THE CIRCLE, a world premiere written and performed by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen and directed by Chay Yew, at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24-27 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, presented as part of PRC2.
TICKETS: $15 and up.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-7529 or http://tickets.playmakersrep.org/single/SYOS.aspx?p=10392.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE: A talkback with the artists and selected subject-matter experts will follow each performance.
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen (Brooklyn, NY-based playwright and performer): http://deentheplaywright.weebly.com/ (official website), https://playmakersrep.org/artists/mashuq-mushtaq-deen/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.dramatistsguild.com/memberdirectory/getmembership.aspx?cid=41565 (Dramatists Guild), http://newdramatists.org/mashuq-mushtaq-deen (New Dramatists), https://www.facebook.com/mashuq.deen (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/mashuqdeen (Twitter page).
Chay Yew (Singapore-born New York City director and Victory Gardens Theater artistic director): http://victorygardens.org/about/staff/chay-yew/ (Victory Gardens Theater bio), http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/chay-yew/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chay_Yew (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail email@example.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)