Theater In Dialogue
DAEL ORLANDERSMITH and MASHUQ MUSHTAQ DEEN with Diana Oh
I was so excited for when I (she/her/they/them) sat down with Mashuq Mushtaq Deen (he/him) and Dael Orlandersmith (she/her) to speak about their two plays going up at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in rep with one another. It was an intimate chance for me to sit down with two heroic artists I admire. We spoke for an hour and a half. Here is our conversation condensed into my favorite moments.
Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood was written in response to Michael Brown’s death. Having interviewed scores of St. Louis residents, she portrays the many faces found within the community, giving each a chance to take center stage and holding no one viewpoint above others.
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s Draw the Circle is the story of his transition, and is told from the point of view of Deen’s family and friends, as portrayed by Deen, bringing to life what a family goes through when their child transitions from one gender to another.
Diana Oh (Rail): What do you think your superpower is?
Mushuq Mushtaq Deen: Empathy. I think to the point it’s irritating to some people.
Rail: Why irritating? Because it’s like, “STOP FEELING MY FEELINGS?”
Deen: Well that too. But then also because I’ll always be like, “Well how does that person that we don’t feel in this moment?” What makes them do that?” And also, it’s the writer in me—I can’t have a bad guy in my play, so I’m interested in how they came to their view on life.
Rail: What’s your superpower, Dael?
Dael Orlandersmith: Curiosity. Three words I’m learning to be comfortable with: “I don’t know.”
Rail: When was your aha moment of I need to practice “I don’t know?”
Orlandersmith: I think it happens as one gets older. I used to always say, “I read this, I know this, I did that.” It’s like, “No, you don’t know.” When you’re so confident in that way, you get in your own way. I used to get off on the fact that if I had an argument with someone that I shut them down. It’s like, “No, you didn’t learn a fucking thing, you were just being a bully at that moment. You weren’t doing anything miraculous, and in turn you didn’t learn a fucking thing.” So that’s what I mean by “I don’t know.”
Rail: Do you feel like your pieces reflect that superpower?
Orlandersmith: Well, definitely with the Michael Brown shooting. With this piece I had to definitely say, “I don’t know.” I’m not playing him; I’m not playing Darren Wilson. We’re looking at how this shooting affects people. How far have we come in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018? What does race mean? How do people feel about themselves? There are certain people that I met that I did not like upon meeting but I had to learn to love them in order to feel them out fairly as people.
Deen: I think that my play embraces opposite viewpoints—it’s about all the people who are really confused and struggling, and so you get both sides, but I think there’s this way that no one’s bad to understand why people struggle. And I think the audience feels pulled in that way.
Orlandersmith: One of the people that I play is a cop. When I sat down—I interviewed people about the Michael Brown shooting—and I said, “Listen, I just have to let you know, I’m not playing you. I’m getting a sense of how the way things feel.” In terms of meeting with people and people who are just composites, I had to love them all. Otherwise, they will come out as stereotypes. They will come out one-dimensional. It’s easy to write about somebody you like, right? It’s very hard to write about somebody you dislike and find passion for them. That’s hard.
Rail: I think that takes a lot of emotional maturity to sit back and—
Orlandersmith: I’m not there yet! (She laughs).
Rail: It’s a lifelong journey.
Orlandersmith: It’s a lifelong journey.
Rail: Did you interview people for your piece also, Deen?
Deen: No. I mean mine’s autobiographical, so it was a different process, but I did do some research. My partner gave me her journals at the time, so some of the things are lifted from her journals, but no one else would have participated in the writing of this piece.
Rail: Does your family…? How... uh, yeah...
(I’m at a loss of words because I can’t imagine how brave of a person you have to be to write a piece like Deen’s.)
Deen: They know it exists. They’re happy for me, and they don’t want to see it because it’s too personal, which I understand.
Rail: Do you want them to see it?
Deen: I’ve invited them to see it because I want them to see my work, but I totally get that this would be really hard for them to see. And not because I don’t draw them with love, but A) It’s hard to see a representation of yourself on stage. B) They now know how hard it was for me, but they didn’t at the time, and it would be much too hard for them to face that reality. Not all traumas have I shared with them, and I wouldn’t want to have them find out in a crowded theater with other people.
Rail: I feel like what both of you are dealing with in your pieces is very life and death. Do you feel that in terms of the calling?
Deen: I mean I always think the stakes should be really high. Otherwise, why am I there? I don’t want to see a play with low stakes. So, I think the stakes are life and death in these stories. There’s a list of names at the end. Which is just the [transgender] people who have been murdered in 2017, which is more than the people in 2016, which is more than the people in 2015, so I think part of it is: this is one story, and each of these people is another story. Like, I made it; they didn’t. I happen to be in certain circumstances that helped me. I’m lucky.
Rail: What helps either of you push through those blocks anytime you’re feeling stifled, or feeling fearful?
Deen: I think I back myself into a corner because I’m afraid to make the choice. And then I get stuck in the corner, and it’s either going to destroy me, or I’m going to make the choice I didn’t realize I needed to make, and so sometimes it’s not super conscious. And then I force it, and then I see it destroying me, and I think: okay, I don’t want to be destroyed. Let’s try saying no, let’s try disappointing people, let’s try moving into an artistic direction other people think I shouldn’t, but I’m gonna do it anyway because obviously some part of me needs to, or else I’m going to eat myself alive.
Orlandersmith: I’m a loner. We’re both Scorpios.
(As she points to herself and Deen. My gawd, I love how much Dael digs astrology.)
Orlandersmith (continued): There’s a certain period of time where I have to be on my own to exorcise stuff. To exorcise one’s demons. And it’s okay to be alone with your loneliness. To make peace with your loneliness. And I’m not talking about it in terms of being defeatist. Death and loneliness—we have to acquaint ourselves with those things. We have to be uncomfortable friends.
And even with this piece—I’m petrified. I did it in 2016 [in St. Louis]. But this is New York turf. Let’s say I get slammed, I still gotta do my work.
Deen: I totally relate to what Dael said. People—I like the support—but they confuse me, and sometimes I need to go back to that space where it’s just me and a lot of empty space, so I can find out what is it that my heart really wants to do. Sometimes, and even though I appreciate the support of other people, with well-meaning people, they can push me in a direction where I don’t need to go.
Rail: Speak to me about this New York turf, Dael.
Orlandersmith: New York City is the city that can make or break you. But you can’t think that way. If you get slammed, you still gotta do your work. I’ve been slammed, but I’m hoping this piece does resonate. There’s a part of me that says, “Oh please please,” but I can’t think like that even though I do think like that.
Rail: How do you push through getting slammed?
Orlandersmith: Not easy. I close down. I can become very bitter. And then I yank back and say, “Okay, look. You’re making a living at what you do. A lot of other people can’t say that. You’re blessed. Take your head out your own ass.” And I don’t say that easily because there will still be residual, you know…
Deen: Do you read those reviews while the show’s going on?
Orlandersmith: I kinda do. Yeah. I mean there are writers that make me mad, but is there something to learn from those guys? What can you learn from the people who don’t like you, are they teaching you something?
Rail: What makes you feel seen?
Orlandersmith: I guess on stage. When somebody really gets it. I came across this incredible thing. Ralph Fiennes’s mother Jennifer Lash (she died right before he did Schindler’s List)—she said: “Artists are like the Saints. They are the receivers. Their job is to summon every emotion, every skill, to remain skinlessly alert in order to, as Picasso says, ‘find.’” That’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read. And if you do it, I’m gonna watch you.
Deen: I always think about it like: every night I’m gonna die. In the way of a Tarot card, the death card means things will be irrevocably changed. And your relationship with that audience will never be the same after you perform that piece. The audience will know you in a different way. They will not look at you in the same way. And you can’t go back from that, you might be able to move forward from that—
Orlandersmith: It’s a rebirth, isn’t it?
Deen: Hopefully that’s what it can be. So it’s a death and, hopefully, a rebirth in that moment.
Orlandersmith: I also think what the three of us are doing—we’re giving rebirth to ourselves.
Rail: What’s your least favorite part about making theater?
Orlandersmith: Memorizing lines. I hate it.
(The three of us nod in agreement.)
Rail: What’s your favorite?
Deen: My favorite thing? Knowing I put something better into the world. That I put something painful in, and I did the alchemy and the magic, and something healing has come out of it. Knowing I made the world a little bit better.