(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–South Asian American Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
(MASHUQ) DEEN: I’m a playwright most often and a performer sometimes.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
MD: South Asian and first generation Indian American. I was brought up in a South Indian/Muslim home, and so the combination of those is my cultural background. I’m also part of the LGBTQ community and that is a big part of the culture I entered once I reached adulthood. I would say my heritage is Indian.
In the past I’ve written about being between identities, so between Indian and American, between gay and straight… and as a transgender man, I have crossed the bridge between female and male. Currently, I find myself drawn to larger stories of political time and place, and back to India… though not always the part of India that my family is from.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
MD: Perhaps I’m considered too niche to produce as often as my contemporaries? I don’t know. I know people like my work, but certainly it’s still a struggle to get produced. But I think a lot of playwrights feel that.
Yes, I have been able to take advantage of opportunities, for instance theaters looking for diversity in their fellows or writers.
I believe certain doors have been closed, but since no one tells you that, I don’t know for sure.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
MD: Yes, at first we do. It opens the door and proves to the rest of the theaters that audiences do not just want to see shows about well-to-do white people. Though I would hope mainstream theaters would also decide to do more diverse stories in theater. Our American landscape is quite diverse and our theater should be as well.
When people who are not of a certain community decide to write a story about that community, if they aren’t willing to do their homework, you can create dangerous and offensive (and not the good kind of offensive) theater. You can end up reinforcing stereotypes and denigrating or laughing at a culture that is not your own, and getting your audience to do so as well. I’m not someone who believe that I can only write about people like me, but if I’m going to tread into unknown territory, it’s important that I do so with respect, that I do my research, and that I utilize community partners who can give me honest feedback when I go astray. This is not about censorship, but about telling a three-dimensionally true story.
JL: What is the current state of Southeast Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
MD: We are at a place when casting of Asian actors is at an all-time low: Theaters are only willing to cast Asians in “Asian” roles, but have no problem giving Asian roles to white actors. There is very little South Asian theater happening, and then when money is put towards a production, it ends up being — sadly — the atrocity that is BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS… produced in NYC. The writer has certainly created nuanced and thoughtful works in the past, so I can’t quite understand how he managed to create this. The fact is, though, that a big musical budget was thrown at a show that was chock full of cultural misrepresentation/appropriation, created by a mostly- (if not all-) white creative team with the exception of the writer, who is half Pakistani and half British. The show was supposed to be about Bollywood. There was no one on the creative team who had any expertise with regards to Bollywood or Indian culture. That, to me, is irresponsible. And that show played to a mostly white audience. The show also contains the murder of a cross-dressing character, who is the villain, just before the happy ending, and given the violence that many cross-dressers and hijras in India face (and in the US as well), and also given the fairly positive place they’ve held in Bollywood cinema, it’s pretty thoughtless way to portray a minority group which faces more hate crimes than most other groups. It doesn’t make sense and it’s irresponsible. (Since the writing of this, the theater company in question met with concerned community representatives and issued an apology of sorts.)
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
MD: Have fellowships and writing programs to develop a diverse community of voices, but then don’t assume that your job is done because you have that program. Produce various and diverse work. Look at who’s on your staff and ask yourself if your staff is diverse. Don’t cater to your subscriber base, but believe that your subscriber base has subscribed to you because they believe that you will challenge them with interesting and thought provoking and human stories that will make you think about the world we live in and how we want to live our lives.
A first-generation South Asian American playwright and performer, Deen is an alumni member of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, a New York Theatre Workshop 2050 Fellow, an affiliate artist with the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, as well as one of the artists chosen for the 2013 Tofte Lake Center emerging artist retreat. Full length plays: Shut-Up! (Dennis Johnston Playwriting Prize, James Baldwin Award); Where Children Play: the Story of Tank and Horse (Berkshire Fringe Festival); Draw the Circle (premiered at InterAct Theatre, produced at Hampshire College; staged readings: Public Theater, Dixon Place, Berkshire Fringe, NYTW at Dartmouth, Passage Theatre, and Queens Theatre in the Park). The show is available for booking. His new play, 1984, about the three days of Sikh massacres following the assassination of the Indian prime minister, will receive its first public reading in November of this year at the Hemispheric Institute. He received his MFA at the Actors Studio Drama School/New School of Drama. (DeenThePlaywright.weebly.com)
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com