by Tom Coash
directed by Sally Wood
originally produced at Portland Stage Company,
February 25, 2014
through March 16, 2014
(Photo: Mariam Habib and Donetta Lavinia Grays in rehearsal for the workshop of Veils.)
Veils—the 2013 Clauder Competition winner—is a two act play following the story of two students at the American University in Cairo. Intisar, a hijab wearing African-American Muslim student, enrolls for a year abroad thinking she will finally fit in. Her non-veiled Egyptian Muslim roommate, Samar, enlists Intisar’s help in creating a video blog debating the growing controversy over various head coverings at the school. As the two young women create their blog, they film personal interviews, as well as documenting events on and around campus as the Arab Spring intervenes and threatens to overtake the young women and their project. Veils grew out of Coash’s real-life experiences at the American University. His play presents very real individuals caught on the world stage and responding to events as they unfold. This personal story highlights the complexity of the issues between West and Middle East, freedom, women’s rights, repression, and ideals; as well as examining the role that new media plays in our fast changing our world.
Veils will make an invigorating addition to the American repertoire because it brings current issues of race, religion, and politics to life on the stage. Plays like Coash’s promote diversity and dialogue in a way that is intrinsic to the very nature of theater. We believe that Veils will have life beyond this world premiere, not only because its subject matter is focused on contemporary and relevant issues but also because it will appeal to a young demographic. The script resonates with issues of self-discovery, friendship, and challenged values. At a recent talkback following a developmental reading, women in the audience remarked at how well Coash had captured the language use and personalities of female college students. The script uses new media as a “third actor”—calling for both prerecorded and live shot video connecting the audience to the political issues through a social media format. Ultimately, Veils is a play about young people addressing issues that all of us are curious about. As the nightly news inflames American citizen’s concern over “otherness”, plays such as Veils give audiences an opportunity to see the world from a different vantage point and thereby hopefully increase tolerance and understanding—for example, Maine has traditionally been one of the whitest states in the nation, but as a refugee resettlement area, the influx of refugees has changed how the city of Portland looks and feels. Where seeing a person of color on the street was once surprising, immigrants—primarily from the African continent—are now part of the fabric of the city. These recent immigrants have brought with them a significant shift in dress and religious beliefs. Women wearing veils and long skirts congregate on street corners speaking in Arabic. The subject matter of Coash’s play is a meaningful way for the long time Maine populations to gain understanding of our newest neighbors. We look forward to seeing how this production can promote greater dialogue and understanding.
Veils explores the East/West cultural divide through the friendship between Intisar, an African-American Muslim who chooses to wear the veil or hijab, and Samar, a liberal Egyptian Muslim who chooses not to. When Intisar first arrives in Cairo, she expects to finally fit in among other Muslims who don’t judge her for her beliefs. However, even before she begins her classes at the American Egyptian University, her Egyptian roommate Samar, a budding journalist, challenges her decision to wear what Samar believes is an oppressive garment. Stereotyped as a typical American by Egyptians and sparring with Samar about veiling and the role of women within Islamic tradition, Intisar quickly discovers that being a foreigner, even in a country where most share her religious beliefs, is harder than she expected. Meanwhile, Samar enlists her as a contrasting voice for her blog, where the two women express their views on veiling, Islam, and the emancipation of women. At the same time, Intisar is blocked from seeing the imam she hopes to study with because she is a woman. When a protest about the AEU’s decision to ban the niqab (full body covering also known as a burka) breaks out, Samar is on one side, supporting the ban, while Intisar—dressed in a niqab to protest the ban—is injured by protesters on Samar’s side throwing stones at the women in niqabs. The conflict almost drives the two friends apart, but they reconcile and decide to go on with the blog project. Soon after, Samar goes to cover a heavy metal concert for the school paper and police storm the concert, arrest Samar, and subject her to a shameful sexual examination. She and Intisar flee to the Hilton in Cairo overlooking Tahrir Square where protesters are beginning to gather. Samar decides to go out and join the protest in the square while Intisar practices the call to prayer (performed exclusively by men) in their hotel room.
A play such as Veils will benefit substantially from the additional rehearsal time the Edgerton Foundation’s New American Play Award could provide, to allow the actors to create the world, and also to examine how multimedia projections described in the text by the playwright will become like a third actor in some scenes. Support from the Edgerton Foundation will help Portland Stage and our audiences continue to be involved in the process of creating something new, unique, and individual that will live for years to come.
Director: Sally Wood
Set Design: Anita Stewart
Lighting Design: Byron Winn
Sound Design: Shannon Zura
Costume Design: Clinton O'Dell
Stage Manager: Myles C. Hatch