BWW Reviews: World Premiere of VEILS Tackles Thorny Cultural Issues
In presenting the world premiere of Tom Coash's play, Veils, the winner of the 2012 Clauder Competition for New England playwrights, Portland Stage has introduced audiences to a brave new work which addresses the thorny crosscurrents of cultural identity. The company, as always, has mounted this moving piece about two college students at the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolution in Cairo with bold conviction.
Coash, who himself has lived in Egypt and taught at the American University there, has written a drama about bridging the cultural gap between West and Middle East. His protagonists are a pair of female Muslim students, African-American Intisar, who comes to Egypt in search of her religious and cultural roots, and Samar, a liberal budding journalist, who opposes the gender restrictions of her society. Roommates, they embark on a project to blog about the practice of wearing veils, a subject on which they disagree. The tensions between the girls mount and then pour themselves into the eruption of the Arab Spring protests in Tahrir Square, as they both come to understand that while their views and destinies may diverge in some ways, they still share a deep bond of friendship built along the journey.
The veil is a metaphor for Intisar's and Samar's respective identities. To each the veil represents a layer of the self, and though they disagree about whether to wear this layer as a mantle of protection and a badge of dignity as Intisar does, or to insist on stripping it away to reveal the naked, emancipated self as Samar hopes, both women understand its significance in forging their fate. It is a symbol of their shared tie as Muslim women, and in its various incarnations, it comes to represent cultural diversity as well as unity.
Tom Coash" height="320" src="http://newimages.bwwstatic.com/upload10/694414/coash.jpg" style="float:right" width="244" />Coash writes with knowledge and passion about his subject. The Middle East has fascinated him for years, and this two-act version of Veils, which was expanded and rewritten from the seed of the play in its 2007 one-act manifestation, speaks very much to our times. To the playwright's credit, however, he has not written a mere thesis play. His characters are lively - surprising even, colorful often. His command of dialogue is witty and poignant with a real ear for the idiomatic. And he revels in the contrast of people and events that makes the drama crisp and compelling.
Under the fluid direction of Sally Wood, Portland Stage has mounted an energetic production, minimalist, yet colorful that pulsates with contrast. Using multimedia projections on moving skrims, designer Anita Stewart is able to create vividly the larger historical context while preserving the focus on the girls' interior drama. She is aided by Bryon Winn's atmospheric lighting, which conjures up the physical and emotional heat of Cairo, and by Shannon Zura's enveloping sound design, which makes a teeming collage of Middle Eastern music, street sounds, news reels, and the haunting call to prayer. And in a play very much about the clothing which defines the woman, Clinton O'Dell's costumes admirably delineate the contrasts and battle lines which these veils - and lack of them - represent.
Hend Ayoub as Samar gives a spirited performance as a young Egyptian woman in search of modern values, tantalized by the West, poised to reject the traditions of Islam she believes no longer have any relevance. Her transformation from optimistic college blogger to committed activist, hastened by her brutal experience at the hands of the police, is a revelatory moment that captures the spontaneous energy of the Arab Spring.
Donnetta Lavinia Grays brings a dignified maturity, iron will, and no small measure of humor to American student, Insitar, whose personal journey to deepen her religious and cultural sense of self is challenged and ultimately strengthened by gender prejudice and cataclysmic events.
Both actresses handle the fast-paced dialogue, that slips in and out of Arabic and English, with ease, and both have riveting moments in moving monologues which Coash manages to weave seamlessly into the fabric of the play.
The final scene of the play - when Samar has rushed off to join the rebels in Tahrir Square and Insitar steps to the window to join her voice with the muezzin's in the call to praye, a privilege forbidden women -is at once chilling and affirming. It is, as Tom Coash has written a demonstration of what Insitar calls "her freedom of choice" and Samar "her voice." Whatever the appellation, it is a powerful testament to the courage of the human spirit in times of personal and societal crisis.
Photos courtesy of Portland Stage Company, Aaron Flacke, photographer.
Veils runs at Portland Stage until March 16, 2014
Portland Stage Company, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207-774-0465 www.portlandstage.org