Mashuq Mushtaq Deen
Why I Am Choosing to Forgo the Final Two Years
of My New Dramatists Residency
“Healthy environments include caring but firm
confrontation and consequences for behavior
that is harmful to others or to the group.”
~ Carol S. Pearson
In the theater world, and in most of our lives, we live surrounded by the myth of scarcity. Because we often believe there’s not enough to go around, many of us feel that we must not question the hand that gives. But I’m a brown transgender man and I’ve been forced my whole life to question because the world does not cater to me. And so I question, and I do it as thoughtfully and kindly as I can, out of a desire to help those around me.
I’ve been asked, “Could you have avoided what happened to you at New Dramatists?” I don’t think so. It’s not that I enjoy conflict – I don’t. When I was placed on the board’s EDAI (Equity, Diversity, Accessibility, and Inclusion) subcommittee, I could not have known that I would be punished for raising equity concerns. And since I felt it was my responsibility to speak up for those who weren’t in the room, I had to raise the concerns that I saw.
Just like I have to say something now.
New Dramatists is one of the better organizations in our field, but the amount of damage they caused me by acting out of fear is profound: In the last year of my life, my ability to work was severely diminished which impacted three different residencies, my health suffered in tangible ways, and I continue to experience somatic trauma symptoms. I will describe as concisely as I can how, over the course of 16 months, New Dramatists’ leadership had many opportunities to change course, but did not; how they tried to avoid the appearance of discrimination, and in so doing, in my opinion, were discriminatory, meaning they treated me, a trans BIPOC playwright, differently than they would have a cis, white playwright.
If you don’t know New Dramatists, they are one of the few playwright development organizations in the country. Their mission is:
… to provide playwrights with time, space and resources in the company of gifted peers to create work, realize their artistic potential, and make lasting contributions to the theatre. … Each resident playwright acts as the artistic director of their own seven-year new play laboratory, utilizing a menu of programming resources to pursue their artistic, process and development goals. Their Lab work is housed in a mindfully cultivated environment, free from financial and critical pressures, with guidance and support from a dedicated staff who encourage expansive, creative, and strategic thinking. Writers map their own journeys with complete creative authority.
Those of us who are chosen for a residency feel fortunate because we know that there are many other playwrights who are just as deserving as we are (and this is part of what makes it hard to speak up). The rhetoric of the organization is one of family and community, and as a queer transgender man who has experienced exile in my life, “home” holds deep meaning for me. I quickly became very involved in the organization, volunteering on the Writers Executive Committee (WEC) for over five years and serving on the Board of Directors for more than three years. In 2017, I brought the Ghostlight Project to New Dramatists. I did these things because I cared for the organization and wanted to help my fellow playwrights. During my time there, I formed friendships with staff and playwrights alike, and like at many theater institutions, the personal and professional overlapped.
In March of 2021, as a member of the New Dramatists board of directors, I was asked by the Board Chair to join the newly formed EDAI Task Force. As a transgender BIPOC playwright, I have a lot of experience to offer in this area and I accepted because I wanted to be of service. I always try to advocate for people who are not in the room, and from then on, I felt it was my responsibility to pay closer attention to equity issues within the organization. Shortly thereafter, I raised an equity concern at a Writers Executive Committee meeting, and the concern was this:
During NYC’s vaccine rollout in the spring of 2021, there was a moment when workers at “public-facing nonprofits” were eligible to get the vaccine and a number of theaters wrote eligibility letters for their artists (I received my letter from Ma-Yi Theater). When New Dramatists declined to offer similar letters to all their resident playwrights, I raised the following equity observation: The three staff members who made the decision on this were homogeneous — they were white, lived outside of NYC, lived with other people, and had cars. I was aware of these disparities because I, too, had a partner and a car, and understood that this made the pandemic a vastly different experience for me. However, many playwrights lived alone, were black and brown folks with health disparities, and/or lived in the heart of the city without a safe mode of transportation. I raised this equity concern within the context of a Writers Executive Committee meeting, and made a point to acknowledge the integrity of all the staff members involved. But I also brought up the possibility that decision makers of a different demographic might have decided differently.
When I raised this equity issue, I advocated only for this: Going forward, can we include more diverse voices in the conversation before decisions are made? (The playwright body is the most diverse arm of the organization, as opposed to the staff and board which are primarily white, and yet we have the least say in what happens organizationally.)
A month later, the Executive Director told me that he was so offended by what I raised that he and his wife had “decided to revoke [their] personal friendship” from me. I was hurt; it was difficult to comprehend why he would end our friendship when I was only doing what I was tasked to do, which was to help the organization become more equitable. However, my feelings aside, this nonetheless brought up a serious second EDAI concern, that of punitive consequences.
In the theater, personal and professional relationship boundaries are blurry; we’re often friends with our colleagues. And though the ending of a personal friendship is in no way a legal issue, within the context of raising an equity concern, it’s inappropriate because it’s a punitive consequence coming from a person with more power – the Executive Director – and aimed at a person with less power — a playwright. If raising an equity concern in a professional setting will end a personal friendship, BIPOC playwrights will hesitate to raise equity issues to a mostly white board and staff; and because the boundaries are blurry, the ending of a personal friendship for these reasons can potentially affect our ability to work at an institution.
In response to this concern, a group of about eight playwrights crafted a statement that was read at the following Writers Executive Committee (WEC) meeting in June that 1) acknowledged the hard work of the staff and reaffirmed the love that the playwrights felt for them, while 2) raising the issue that we need to be able to bring up equity concerns without punitive consequences of any kind. This incident, the statement went on to say, wasn’t about what happened between myself (Deen) and a staff member, but instead revealed that the staff, and all of us really, did not have the tools to hear equity concerns constructively. In the statement, the playwright group asked for an outside facilitator to provide us with these needed tools so we could navigate this new territory together.
Instead of hiring an equity-trained facilitator, the matter was immediately referred to the board’s HR Task Force. I was singled out and informed that there would be an “investigation” and that “I could file a complaint.” I wasn’t interested in any kind of punitive process against the Executive Director of New Dramatists and I said so. What we had asked for was a facilitator and a community process. Nobody responded to my email.
It was at this point that I began to feel fear.
Within a couple of weeks, I was informed that lawyers had been called and that there would be an investigation whether I participated or not. (What was not told to me at the time was that the ED also had a lawyer; I was the only party without legal representation.) I was also informed that the HR Task Force was investigating two things: 1) if I had been discriminated against based on my transgender BIPOC identity, and 2) if I had suffered professional punitive consequences. I said over and over again that neither of these things had happened to me (the ED had ended a friendship, but had not attempted to harm my career), but I was told that they would investigate anyway — an investigation that took 4 months, and in the end found nothing.
While the investigation was going on, the entire staff (bar one), many of whom were my friends, stopped talking to me. Of those, most confusingly, the Artistic Director, who was both mentor and friend, stopped talking to me suddenly and without explanation except for the most impersonal of correspondence. (We would later be told that “they were contractually obligated to do so.”) All communication on the playwright listserv about what had happened was shut down and I became isolated from my peers. I experienced somatic symptoms: I was unable to sleep, unable to concentrate; my anxiety and blood pressure were so elevated from this experience alone that I had to consult a doctor and therapist, both of whom affirmed that what I was experiencing was “trauma.” It was clear that the organization had not dealt with a situation like this before, and I asked board members on both the HR Task Force and the EDAI Task Force to speak with an equity consultant for “best practices,” but nothing indicated that they did.
By August, I began to feel that I was being punished. I finally told the Writers Executive Committee playwrights what was going on — they had had no idea — and a handful of playwrights stepped up to help me. These very few playwrights are my heroes. They understood why what had happened was so traumatizing, some because they had experienced it themselves at other arts institutions, and they put themselves in very uncomfortable positions with New Dramatists’ leadership in their attempts to help me. They advocated for reconciliation, pushed for a community-wide healing process, and the hiring of consultants. Throughout their advocacy, they encountered resistance and many of them began to experience what I was experiencing — gaslighting, a lack of transparency and communication, the organization dragging its feet.
When the consultants were eventually hired in January, they were hired with the understanding that reconciliation and healing were at the top of the priority list. After speaking with me for many hours, they brought up the need for accountability. However, within just over two months, the consultants stopped talking about reconciliation and when playwrights pushed for it, they stopped responding to our emails. The long-awaited community-wide meeting in March ended up being an unfacilitated gathering at which the board chair said multiple times (and I’m paraphrasing here): we need to stop talking about this and move on and you keep saying you’ve been hurt, but you brought it up in the first place.
(Unbeknownst to me at the time in an effort to protect me, the board chair had called a colleague of mine back in August and described me as “whining and crying” and asked her to “tamp this down.” Disturbed by the call, she had reported the behavior to a member of the board’s executive committee, but as far as we known no one ever followed up on it.)
When I raised these disparaging words at the all-community meeting in March, the board chair doubled down, implying that I was being overly sensitive, and belittling my colleague in the process. That the board chair was speaking in this way was not as upsetting as the fact that no other board member nor anyone in a staff leadership position challenged him on it or advocated for greater respect for the BIPOC playwrights. In direct response to these events, myself and another BIPOC colleague resigned from the Writers Executive Committee, and I resigned from the board.
By April 2022 – a full year since this had begun – still no reconciliation had been attempted by the organization. The leadership’s gaslighting communications and behavior continued to make me feel unsafe in New Dramatists’ spaces and triggered somatic trauma responses in me which were interfering with my life and work. I finally brought on my own equity consultant and asked for a meeting with the artistic staff to discuss alternative ways for me to do my work over the final two years of my residency. The main “asks” were to remove me from the majority of their communications and permission to do my two remaining extended (29-hr) workshops offsite. It’s important to note that I needed these accommodations not because I was “mad” or “sad,” but because I was experiencing somatic trauma symptoms – physical symptoms which made it impossible to work.
After months of negotiations with my consultant, including long, patient explanations about how trauma lives in the body and functions as a handicap, and how structural racism affects BIPOC people, the Artistic Director refused my request to work off site. I then reached out to an arts advocacy organization for help and they advocated on my behalf. They were successful on one hand – New Dramatists reversed course, I could get my two offsite workshops. However, just days before the advocate spoke to them, New Dramatists shifted how they would interact with me: They had suddenly decided to treat me as an “occasional employee” and all further negotiations would be with their HR staff person; their emails became even even more legalistic and impersonal; they refused to communicate with my consultant any further citing privacy issues, even though I had specifically requested the consultant be a part of all communications so that I could feel safe. The email they sent me was, in my opinion, as much from their HR person as from their legal team. The AD had relinquished me to HR. No other artist at New Dramatist was being treated this way.
This is why I’m leaving New Dramatists and forgoing the final two years of my residency. I raised an equity concern and it is my feeling that I was punished for it. Not once, but over the course of more than a year. Not by one person, but by the entire leadership, both staff and board leaders. At no point did anyone in a leadership position apologize to me, even though numerous people knew (and said off the record) it had been handled badly; so badly that I lost the safety of my artistic home and playwright community. By walking away I will further lose the last two years of my residency and two extended workshops, but I will walk away with my dignity intact.
That this happened to me is happenstance, it could have happened to any BIPOC playwright. There will be those who argue that this never would have happened if we were in person, that we were dealing with extraordinary circumstances during the pandemic. I believe the pandemic gave us an extraordinary opportunity, and New Dramatists did not take it.
Most corporate systems are white supremacist systems, and pandemic or no pandemic, New Dramatists’ corporate structure is no different. The HR process I was forced through, for example, concentrated power and information at the very top, within a small group of people who were mostly white; it kept information from the playwrights, and isolated me from my peers; it refused to meaningfully include playwrights and/or BIPOC people within the process; and the board chair became most angry when I started sharing my experience of what was happening to me with my colleagues.
What’s ironic is that this never would have happened to a white, cisgender playwright. I can’t know what was said behind closed doors, but I believe that New Dramatists’ leadership looked at me and saw a brown, transgender playwright. They are the ones who raised the specter of discrimination and demanded an investigation. No playwright in any meeting or in any written statement had insinuated that I had been discriminated against. But I believe, because they were so afraid of a discrimination suit, and because they lawyered up so quickly, and because they were so afraid that any apology would be seen as an admission of guilt or culpability, they ended up treating me differently. In trying to avoid being seen as discriminatory, they became discriminatory, perhaps not in a legal sense — I can’t say for sure, because I can’t afford legal representation — but certainly in a moral one.
I still believe most of the people at New Dramatists are good people. But it is not enough to be good. We must also be able to hold the fact that we are good and we have done something wrong.
I was hurt, yes, but harm moves in all directions — it does damage to the ones who cause it as well as to those who witness it; it damages the entire fabric of our community. It creates fear, and out of fear, even more harm is done. New Dramatists could have called in an organizational therapist instead of lawyers. They could have led with kindness and humility, but instead they led with arrogance.
I have no illusions that anything I say here will make a difference in the way New Dramatists moves forward. But I hope, for the larger theater community, it will be a cautionary tale, that it will prevent this degree of harm from happening to anyone else. These corporate, white-supremacist processes are not equitable, are not driven by community values — and they are soul crushing. We heal the fabric of the community not by excising any one part, but by reweaving the threads of the fabric so they are stronger. We do this with both anger and love. I hope as a theater community we can hold both, and hold the fact that they are inextricably linked.
(I resigned in August of 2022. To date, no apology has ever been offered.)