In his one-person show “Draw the Circle,” Mashuq Mushtaq Deen recounts his real-life transition from female to male. Transitioning is never an uncomplicated journey, but in Deen’s tight-knit Muslim American family, it’s especially tricky.
Written and performed by Deen, the enthralling 80-minute play now at Mosaic Theater Company is performed on a raised stage that’s completely bare except for a plain hardback white chair and, of course, Deen, a stocky, balding, bearded man in early middle age wearing a T-shirt and jeans. He wastes no time slipping in and out myriad characters comprised of family, friends and doctors who tell us about Deen from his teenage years as Shereen to the near present. It’s masterful storytelling that gives both a full sense of the subject and Deen’s wide range as a performer.
His rocky tale unfolds through the eyes of others but never from Deen directly. High school Shereen is bright and butch. She comes out as a lesbian. She shaves her heads and becomes a cutter. There’s a near suicide attempt in a lonely motel room and a yearlong stay in a private institution.
For Shereen’s Indian immigrant parents (retired Daddy and hardworking pediatrician Mommy) every derivation from the good girl Muslim course is one more tragedy. Her jovial finger-waving father and embittered mother have life mapped out for their only daughter: education, good job, marriage and children. Mommy has longed to one day see Shereen in her red wedding sari. That isn’t happening.
Along with Shereen’s refusal to look and act like the traditional young woman comes great shame, pain and unhappiness for Deen’s mother, prompting limited interaction with their Muslim friends here and with family back in India. But Mommy’s feelings run deeper than appearances. In a poignant moment she explains that Muslim culture calls for a daughter to wash her mother’s body before burial. Seeing her daughter change into to man, Mommy realizes she will not have that.
Deen’s writing is informative and funny without a hint of preachiness. And director Chay Yew keeps it light without denying the work’s importance. Yew, perhaps best known for writing gay-themed plays including. “Porcelain” (1992) about a young gay Asian man who has confessed to shooting his lover in a public lavatory in London, and “A Language of Their Own” (1995) which chronicles gay Asian love in the age of AIDS, is the perfect complement to the material.
We learn most about Deen through his patient partner Molly. When they first meet, Deen is still Shereen. As they get to know each other better, Deen asks Molly if she’d still love him if his voice became gravelly and his body hairy. She’s initially confused but then understands.
Life continues. Shereen changes pronouns, earns a graduate degree in theater, travels, takes hormones and ultimately goes for top surgery. The closest we come to hearing directly from Deen is when Molly reads a poem from Deen to his mother about normalization of their relationship and yearning to return to a place before complications existed. Though over the years they experience periods of separation, they are never permanently estranged. Mommy describes Deen as “half-woman and half man but always our daughter.”
The play ends with Deen standing shirtless center stage backed by a projected list of names of transgender people who met untimely tragic deaths. It’s a powerful image.