An autistic man fights against a biotech company touting a cure for autism and falls in love with his neurotypical neighbour in a new play by poet and playwright Faduma Mohamed. The U of T Mississauga alumna and autism advocate returns to her alma mater this fall to debut her newest one-woman play, Golden Mind: A Journey Through Love, Activism and the Realm of Autism. The performance launches the 2019-2020 UTM’s Women and Gender Studies Feminist Lunch Series at the MiST Theatre on Monday, Sept. 23.
Developed through an independent study course with Assistant Professor Nicole Charles of the Department of Historical Studies, Golden Mind is the second play by Mohamed, who studied English and Women and Gender Studies before graduating in June 2019. “It is so superbly done,” Charles says. “We wanted to bring the play to a broader audience.”
Mohamed’s first play, OUGHTISM, was developed with playwright d’bi.young anitafrikaat the watah theatre in Toronto, and debuted as part of the Audre Lorde Works-In-Progress Theatre Festival in 2016. “OUGHTISM follows Tariq, a Black nonverbal autistic savant, and how he navigates through school society, family and love,” Mohamed says. As Tariq falls for Reign, his neurotypical neighbour, Mohamed explores other themes including a controversial quest to “cure” autism, society’s concept of normal and who is deemed to be deserving of love.
In her final year at UTM, Mohamed needed to pick up a credit that fit around the hours of her part-time job with an employment training program for at-risk youth in Toronto. “I didn’t know how I was going to balance that commitment with school,” Mohamed says. Charles agreed to supervise an independent study project, providing the student with the flexibility and guidance she needed.
“Faduma’s passion and commitment to social justice really drove this project,” says Charles, who developed a syllabus incorporating intersectional, transnational and woman of colour feminist theories and methodologies. “My goal was to get her to use her skills in critical reflection to inform her analysis of the complexities of race, biomedicine, capitalism and autism, and think about how can we have these conversations in a non-traditional way.”
Golden Mind picks up the threads of the OUGHTISM story as the biotech organization tries to make prenatal intervention for autism mandatory and Tariq and Reign become activists fighting against a future free of disabilities. “I knew that one chapter of that story was done, but I felt like it was capable of more,” Mohamed says. “Professor Charles introduced me to theories and methodologies. Because I was more informed in the language of disability justice, I kept those ideas in mind while continuing the story of characters who I am so familiar with.”
OUGHTISM and Golden Mind are both fiction, however the playwright drew upon her own experiences growing up in her Somali familty with younger brother Bilal, who is autistic and nonverbal. “There was no one in our family or neighbourhood who was autistic, so there was a real lack of knowledge,” she says, adding that as a child, she sometimes told people Bilal was deaf because she didn’t know how to explain his behaviour to others.
Mohamed has come a long way in her understanding of autism and now uses her theatre work to advocate for Bilal and others like him. While she was developing OUGHTISM for the stage, she took her work to the street, lugging a prop from her play—a plastic storage bin—everywhere she went, including to her UTM classes for an entire year. The box gave her a way spark conversations and connections with strangers about autism. “People on the bus would ask, ‘What’s up with the box?’ and I could talk about the play and about what I have learned about autism,” she says. “Connecting with people who are on the spectrum, or had autistic family members on the spectrum, meant the most to me.”
The experience prompted Mohamed to launch #OughtTheBox, an annual campaign that has raised over $9,000 to support racialized autistic people and their families across Canada. “There are so many different challenges that racialized communities face, like language, that are barriers to getting the help they need,” she says. The initiative includes direct donations and revenues from t-shirt sales, as well as an annual event night featuring performances and talks from people with autism and their families. “They share their challenges and triumphs and, most importantly, what they would like neurotypical people to know about autism,” she says.
Mohamed is excited to return to UTM to continue the conversation about autism in her newest work. “Whenever I talk about the challenging stuff, I always keep in mind that my happiest memories are with Bilal,” she says. “He brings a light in the room that nobody else can match.”
See Golden Mind at the MiST Theatre on Monday Sept. 23, 2019. Reception at 11:30 a.m. followed by the performance from 12:00 Noon to 1:30 p.m. The production is supported by the Office of the Vice-Principal Academic and Dean and the Department of Historical Studies.