Review: In ‘Draw the Circle,’ a Girl Becomes a Man

NEW YORK — An autobiographical meditation on identity and presence, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s solo show, “Draw the Circle,” is the story of a suburban girl named Shireen and a Brooklyn man named Deen. They are the same person. And yet they are not.

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, New York Times

NEW YORK — An autobiographical meditation on identity and presence, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s solo show, “Draw the Circle,” is the story of a suburban girl named Shireen and a Brooklyn man named Deen. They are the same person. And yet they are not.

In a series of monologues, sometimes gentle and sometimes harrowing, family members, lovers and others tell us about Shireen’s growing unhappiness — the disorientation, the hospitalizations, the suicide attempts — and gradual recovery, which culminates in her becoming Deen through a gender transition. Neither Shireen nor Deen ever appears as a character.

“Draw the Circle,” which runs in repertory at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater with Dael Orlandersmith’s “Until the Flood,” opens with a picture of a smiling girl in a red sweater, an image that fades as Deen, wearing jeans and a rumpled T-shirt, enters, stepping into the first of a number of lit squares.

A few days before Thanksgiving, Deen’s girlfriend, Molly, is heading to Connecticut with Deen to see his parents, Indian immigrants who struggle to accept them. “We haven’t seen them in two years,” Molly explains. “It’s like I’ve got to prove myself all over again. Yes, I’m white. No, I’m not Muslim. Yes, I’m a girl.” Deen has even more to prove.

The play jumps back and forth in time, from Shireen’s adolescence and early adulthood to Molly’s traffic-plagued drive to New England. Deen plays all the characters. These men and women approach Shireen’s, and then Deen’s, anguish with as much sympathy as they can muster. Often, it’s not a lot.

Deen’s mother doesn’t want to discuss his new identity. “Whatever it is, don’t tell me,” she says. “I can’t handle it. Whatever it is you have to do, please, can’t you just wait until we’re dead and gone?”

Even Molly, who sometimes misses Shireen, has moments of anger. “He has hair everywhere,” she says. “He changed. Because people refused to see him. Maybe he would have stayed a butch if they had just used the freakin’ pronoun he asked them to use!”

Deen, a member of New Dramatists, joins an increasing number of transgender playwrights, like Basil Kreimendahl and Jess Barbagallo. Bald, bearded and baby-faced, he is a winning presence, and he soon engages the audience with the problems of his characters. While regressive legislation about restroom use and an attempted ban of transgender military recruits suggest the fear and suspicion that transgender and gender-fluid people experience, the Rattlestick audience was primed for engagement.

At the Sunday night performance I saw, the crowd was home-game friendly, laughing, cheering and urging Deen back onstage for multiple bows, which sometimes made “Draw the Circle” feel less like a play and more like an eloquent encounter group.

As a document of Deen’s pain and a plea for visibility, it is persuasive. If you can watch it without feeling compassion, see your cardiologist. But as a work of art, it’s less convincing.

Under Chay Yew’s efficient, unobtrusive direction, Deen is no shaman. Audience distractions rattle him, and unlike solo performers like Anna Deavere Smith, Sarah Jones, Danny Hoch or Orlandersmith, his characters never come fully alive. He doesn’t yet have the gift for defining a person with a posture, a gesture or a linguistic tic, and his accents tend to travel.

Also not fully present: Deen himself. Obviously, that’s a choice braided into the DNA of “Draw the Circle.” Deen has opted to trace his journey through the eyes of onlookers. But by focusing so narrowly on gender, he provides a very limited self-portrait.

Of course, a gender transition — such a fundamental change in identity — is fascinating. But I can’t believe that it’s the only fascinating thing about Deen. A program note mentions that he is an activist and “a man of many hobbies, including bread baker, monster-maker and student of the classical guitar and tin whistle.” I wanted to meet that guy — the artist, the activist, the good baker and the lousy musician. (I mean, can anyone really master the tin whistle?)

In making a play about himself, Deen should draw the circle wider.


Production Notes:

‘Draw the Circle’

Through Feb. 18 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, rattlestick.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

By Mashuq Mushtaq Deen; directed by Chay Yew; sets by Yew; lighting by Mary Louise Geiger; sound by Matt M. Nielson; production manager, Ana Mari de Quesada; production stage manager, Laura Wilson; deck stage manager, Debora Porazzi. Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

Cast: Mashuq Mushtaq Deen.

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