Making the stage a safe space

Breaking boundaries onstage

Editor's Note: The recent spate of racially-motivated attacks against Indians in the US has raised several troubling questions. The principal among these produced by heightened xenophobia; go back to your country. Firstpost set out to interrogate the messy, complex and dislocated experience of being Indian in America; is this my country? The series that resulted, Homeland, is a compendium of interviews, analyses and opinion pieces.

In this, the seventh part, read about how queer South Asian artists are making the stage their safe space. 

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Home is a safe place. It is a space that allows us to exhale and unburden ourselves of the restrictive suits we wear to face the world. It is a place where we can be vulnerable, unrestrictedly ourselves, watched or un-watched. For people who experience marginalisation in one way or another, this sense of security only extends so far. A woman walking down the street experiences a heightened awareness, a level of low-grade fear that lingers until she can step over the threshold and into the cool comfort of her home. There, she can be free to smile or not smile. A person of color can allow his face to soften; he can turn his internal censor off, accepting that the familiar faces around him will understand, perhaps without him having to speak at all.

Mashuq Deen and D’Lo — the two performance artists I interviewed this week — have made homes for themselves onstage. Deen is a queer-identified, South Asian-American transman and has documented his transition from female-bodied to male-bodied onstage in “Draw the Circle”, a solo production. He has written several plays and is currently working on one about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India. D’Lo, a queer transgender Tamil Sri Lankan — American, knits comedy, poetry, and storytelling together in funny and thought-provoking performances that defy categorisation.

In many ways, both artists exist on the boundaries that we tend to draw between genders, between races, between nations and places. However, both artists recognise that the stage allows for a deep human connection between the performer and the audience that dissolves and blurs these borders.

“In the theater, it feels safe to go on this journey. I try and take care of my audiences but also push them,” says D’Lo. “The real power is that you get to dictate the energy in the room.”

Deen likes to use his performances to explore nuanced and complex characters without judgement.

“We can let a lot of people in because some of the audience don’t know anything about being transgender, some of them know more and because all the characters are struggling with it, I think you’re allowed to just be there and struggle with it and not feel like you’re wrong and I feel like the conversations you can have afterward are different,” says Deen.

- Illustrations: Satwik Gade

Both artists seek to push their audiences to understand and empathise more. Character-driven storytelling is Deen’s approach. In “Draw the Circle”, he paints vivid portraits of the many characters around him during his transition. This way, he is able to explore and deepen his understanding of different perspectives. By putting himself aside, he makes room for the characters to be complex, and ultimately, relatable.

“Even though the story is very much about my transition, I made the decision to not play myself. Within the course of Draw the Circle, I don’t play Deen,” he says. “I only play the characters around him, so I play my parents, I perform my partner, my niece and then there’s about fifteen or sixteen other characters that are one-offs.”

Accessibility is important to Deen, but that is not to say that he does not want to take the audience to places that may feel uncomfortable. Ultimately, the goal is to recognise that states of fear, sadness, alienation, joy, love, and comfort are universally human. Experiencing the characters grapple with these emotions and thoughts allows the audience to connect with them.

“We can let a lot of people in because some of the audience don’t know anything about being transgender. Some of them know more. Because all the characters are struggling with it, I think you’re allowed to just be there and struggle with it and not feel like you’re wrong. I feel like the conversations you can have afterward are different,” says Deen.

Both artists explore the politics of identity through their work. D’Lo, a Tamil Sri Lankan - American immigrant, grew up in Lancaster, a self-described “hick town” in southern California. His parents were part of a small wave of Sri Lankan migration to that part of the country. As a result, he grew up around many Tamil Sri Lankan people. In a set, he jokes that the town has been dubbed “Sri Lankaster” Though racism existed in the larger landscape, D’Lo told me that he grew up feeling safe and proud of his heritage.

“I had reflections of myself in beautiful ways. The traditions of Tamil Sri Lankans weren’t just left on an island,” D’Lo says. “They were cultivated in the high desert.”

Deen grew up in a small Connecticut town. He found his passion for community theater towards the end of college.

“So much about good acting is about being really present. You really have to leave your past and wherever you’re coming from outside the door for a while,” he says. “That resonated a lot with me. It was fun to get to be different people, probably at a time when I wasn’t doing so great.”

Though Deen engages in this art of complex story-craft, his filter is undeniably political.

“It’s almost like it’s not a choice,” he says. “I’m queer, I’m trans, I’m a first generation South Asian-American. I’m living at the intersection of all of these worlds of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, all kinds of things. My artistic filter necessarily incorporates all of those things. I wouldn’t even know how not to write a political play.”

D’Lo uses comedy, poetry, and other modes to share his stories. In D’FunQT, a touring show, he invites queer folks, people of color, and “yes, Islanders” to “exhale in peace, to celebrate in laughter, to feel accepted in all your glory amongst other good people.” He breaks boundaries onstage, switching artfully from character to character, eyes widening and narrowing, voice modulated, completely in control of his audience’s good time.

D’Lo has been invited to tour in India and Sri Lanka. He spent some time with the queer community and various NGOs working for justice.

“Regardless of where you go, and whatever little people have as far as NGOs are concerned, you see that our communities are undeniably resilient across the world,” he says. “I was inspired by the beauty of communities coming together to fight for their rights.”

Both artists consider the stage to be a home and a safe space for them to share their unique filters with an audience. And in a world where shelters and enclaves are few and far between for marginalised folks, nothing is more important than these moments of connection.

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Read part one: Go back to your country

Read part two: Subdrift: Indian Americans find a sense of community

Read part three: Republican Hindu Coalition: A misguided sense of community

Read part four: It's not a turban, it's a crown

Read part five: The economic history of hate

Read part six: Person of colour

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