A Valentine for Humanity. No, not the two Koreas united under one Korean flag at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, although given the warmongering talk on the part of a certain U.S. president, seeing athletes from both North and South Korea walking side-by-side, thereby also creating a counter-narrative, certainly counts as a Valentine in my book.
No, what I had in mind when I decided to title this post Valentine for Humanity was the solo performance I saw this past Friday night: Draw the Circle by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. In telling his autobiographical story of how and why a girl becomes a man, Deen is making sure that stories of what it means to be someone who is transgender are heard and, if not immediately, then perhaps eventually, understood. And that counts as a Valentine in my book.
But wait, there’s more. Because while the content is compelling, so, too, is the artistic form through which the story is shaped. This is a very important point because a certain influential theater critic determined that the performance, though well-intentioned and important, was more therapy than art and too focused on gender. I get a little irritable when reviews proclaim what does and does not constitute art, especially when they completely contradict my experience of a performance. Luckily I read the review AFTER seeing Draw the Circle and since my experience was very different, I feel it’s necessary to describe the artistry that I saw in the performance.
The performance is quite simple. There is a stage with a single white chair, a spotlight upon that chair, a back wall upon which words like “father” or “Molly” or a picture of a young girl with bangs are projected, and a single performer with a close-shaven head, beard and casual attire. The simplicity of the production might lead one to think that artistry might not be its strong point. In addition, the performer doesn’t exactly transform into father, mother, girlfriend, or niece though Deen does incorporate the mannerisms and cadences of a pre-adolescent niece, a father from India telling a joke, and a woman who has lived her whole life in America. And, certainly, when I first sat down and saw the simplicity of the set, I was not predisposed to think that, after attending 60 plus solo performances, I was going to see something different. But, once again as so often happens, I discovered I was wrong, because Friday night was the first time I saw a solo performance that was autobiographical, but that in telling the story included the voice of everyone BUT the person whose autobiography it was. Deen is sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes the girlfriend, sometimes the niece, sometimes the friend, or sometimes the doctor, but never Deen (although, of course, because it’s Deen’s body and voice, it is also always Deen).
Over the course of the performance, we learn that father and mother are Muslim and from India, though they have lived in the United States since the birth of their children, and that because of various things like cultural expectations and traditions and values, they are having difficulty processing that their daughter wants to be a man. We also learn that the girlfriend, who loves Shireen and who is an out and proud lesbian, is also having difficulty processing that her girlfriend wants to be a man and that they will then appear to all the world as a straight couple. Everyone but Deen tells us about their responses to Shireen: asking for the masculine pronoun to be used (the mother and father frequently forget), deciding to take “T” (testosterone) which changes voice and appearance (so that sometimes mother thinks she’s talking to Shireen’s brother), and, finally, at one memorable Thanksgiving visit with the family, determining to go ahead and get the surgery that will take away the breasts.
As we hear father, mother, girlfriend and others learn, not always happily and not always nicely, that Shireen IS Deen, the audience gets a slightly different vision of what humanity can be when it is faced with something it at first doesn’t understand. Yes, we get the expected moments that make us aware of the ways in which gender transition can lead to invisibility and exclusion (there’s more than one family occasion to which Deen is not invited), but the overall effect of the performance is to make us aware of how visibility and inclusion can be fomented. The title, Draw the Circle, comes from Edward Markham, an American poet writing in the early 20th century, and Deen includes Markham’s lines in the playbill insert:
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!
And, there, in that quote, with the appearance of the word “Love,” is the other reason I determined to title this post a Valentine for Humanity. And it’s also the reason that Deen’s performance, while certainly therapeutic, is also art. Because Deen’s performance, I would suggest, literally, as well as figuratively, creates circles of inclusion in the face of exclusion, something the performance, directed by Chay Yew, underscores when Deen moves the sole prop of the performance, a single white chair, meant to suggest the person about whom father, mother, girlfriend and others are talking, circularly around the stage. Because we hear those around Deen respond to Deen, we come to understand that this is not only Deen’s story. This is also his family’s story and his doctor’s story and his partner’s story AND our story (because hopefully we are also responding to what is being told to us) and we come to realize that we have choices to make – we can make the Deens of the world visible and included or invisible and excluded. And, simply and powerfully, the end of the performance reminds us of exactly what happens when we insist upon the trajectory of invisibility and exclusion.
The performance ends with the projection of the names of the transgender men and women who have been killed in the United States in the past year, also including the very inhumane ways in which they were killed. As the names are projected onto the back wall, Deen removes his shirt and bares his upper torso to us without saying a word. And this is the other reason I felt the performance was a Valentine for Humanity. Because the ending so powerfully reminds us that, yes, there is a great deal of hatred and violence in the world, but that there is also something WE can do together to stop that hatred and violence and that’s to see and hear other folks as they come to learn how to draw the circle of love and inclusion. We can stand with Deen in the middle of that spotlight on the stage or we can bleed out into the space of the back wall where violence is inscribed. So that, in my humble opinion, is why I think Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s Draw the Circle is both Valentine and Art.