InterAct festival focuses on identity issues - racial, sexual, ethnic, political

Deen plays his mother, father, and others in his solo festival show, "Draw the Circle," premiering April 4. JOSEPH MORAN
Deen plays his mother, father, and others in his solo festival show, "Draw the Circle," premiering April 4. JOSEPH MORAN
Posted: March 27, 2012

Hearing their 19-year-old daughter come out as bisexual was bewildering enough for a Muslim couple from south India whose own marriage was arranged by elders.

"And I shaved my head," says Deen, a Brooklyn-based performance artist whose parents were stalwarts of their Muslim Indian community just outside Hartford, Conn.

A decade later, when Deen - he uses only one name - told his parents of his intention to live the rest of his life as a man, the news was equally, if not more, confounding.

"I don't think we've ever really recovered" as a family, says the 36-year-old Deen, who portrays his mother, father, and a handful of other characters in Draw the Circle, his new solo show at InterAct Theatre, 2030 Sansom St.

It's part of a four-week festival of new work called "Outside the Frame: Voices From the Other America," which begins Tuesday and runs through April 22.

The festival features a mix of prominent playwrights and newcomers, all of them dealing with issues of identity - sexual, racial, ethnic, political.

Among them is Tim Miller, a gay performance artist who helped found New York's Performance Space 122. He made local news in February when Villanova University abruptly canceled his planned theater workshop on campus, generating considerable controversy. Miller's new play, Lay of the Land, takes on gay marriage legislation (April 12-15), and his ousted workshop finds a home at InterAct (April 9-15)

Deen's play, making its world premiere April 4-8, takes its title from "Outwitted," by the early-20th-century poet Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out -

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

It will be directed by Deen's mentor, Singaporean playwright/director Chay Yew. They met when Deen was in an emerging-writers group at New York's Public Theater, where his work was performed and Yew was directing. Yew, recently named artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, has remained Deen's champion, and is directing him in the festival.

In addition to its focus on Deen's parents, Draw the Circle looks at the actions and reactions of the people who became allies in his transition. Among them is his longtime partner, Elizabeth, who, like Deen, was a bisexual woman.

"And she still is. Elizabeth and I never identified as lesbians, though certainly other people assumed that we were," Deen says. "Each of us identified first as bisexuals, and then as queer (when we stopped seeing gender in such a binary way), and we continue to be very aware of the difficult position of bisexuals within LGBT communities."

Deen says he remains bisexual, and queer: "Now I'm a queer man who is attracted to people."

For his parents, being bisexual meant "a 50 percent chance of my being normal."

And while no two transitions are identical, Deen says his South Asian heritage will resonate with others.

"I think the way a family presents is culturally important in many families. It was for my parents. When I was little, my family home was the place newcomers would come to as they were getting settled," he said in a recent phone interview.

"So, for my parents, shaving my head was the worst possible thing I could have done because it was so visible. â ¦ My parents became more isolated."

Initially they did not want to meet his partner, and they've gone back and forth with that decision in the ensuing years.

His parents' need for silence was especially painful, he says.

"None of it was ever talked about. It was understood that I shouldn't bring up the subject of my gender or my identity. I found the silence hard to manage and damaging to me as a person."

Deen's parents will not be coming to Philadelphia to see his show.

"I think we were doing really well for a few years," he says. "I'm very aware of the fact that they're getting old, and I want to spend time with them."

Other works in the "Outside the Frame" series are Lanna Joffrey's Valiant, which tells the true stories of 13 women who have fought in, suffered through, and survived war (Tuesday through Thursday) and You're Gonna Cry, by Paul S. Flores, which explores the effect of gentrification on local communities (Friday through Sunday).

Among the one-person performances are unFRAMED, in which Iyaba Ibo Mandingo paints his self-portrait as he tells his life story as an Antigua-born immigrant in America (Friday through Sunday), and Palestine, by Najla Saïd - daughter of the late scholar Edward Saïd - a first-person account of life as a "politically agnostic Upper West Side Palestinian American princess" (April 17-19).

And closing the festival, Robert Farid Karimi presents Travels With Whitey and Other Stories, a travelogue about his failed trip to Iran, which he scheduled for Sept. 13, 2001 (April 20-22).

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