Crossing the divide

New play unveils cross-cultural conflict
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 5, 2014

 theater_veils_031714_main

A WORLD PREMIERE Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Intisar (l) and Hend Ayoub as Samar in Veils by Tom Coash.

Egyptian Muslim student Samar (Hend Ayoub) has requested to live with an American roommate at American University in Cairo, while African-American Muslim student Intisar (Donnetta Lavinia Grays) has requested an Egyptian. Neither will be living with the woman she expected — the Egyptian resists the political implications of the veil, while the American wears it devoutly — but they will find  both challenges and communion with each other in the world premiere of Tom Coash’s Veils, winner of the 2012 Clauder Competition for New England playwrights. Sally Wood directs an exuberantly acted production of this exploration of faith, politics, feminisms, and friendship, set right on the cusp of the Arab Spring.

As the fast new friends of this two-hander, who bond immediately over Public Enemy, the beautifully cast, superb Ayoub and Grays pose dynamic contrasts both physically and in their voices. Ayoub, reedlike in frame and motion as the cosmopolitan blogger, trills now of parties, now of politics in her high, birdlike voice, while Grays’ stockier Intisar, here in Cairo from West Philadelphia to study the Quran, has a deep voice and laugh as she calls Samar “girlfriend” and tells her, “Go, girl.” Inti holds both solidity and uncertainty in her frame, sometimes moving with full, grounded gestures, other times holding herself as if she’s not quite sure of her footing. Both women have an irrepressible ebullience and the emotional alacrity of youth. They’re fierce, funny, and endearing as they discuss facets small and large of women in the Muslim world.

As Samar recruits the reluctant Inti for her weblog about veiling and Inti is groped by Egyptians on the street, Veils takes place exclusively among the twin beds of the women’s dorm. But the set’s high modular panels of screens, onto which are projected an elaborate array of Arab world images and video, bring whole cultures into the room — women in both traditional and modern dress, along with the landscape, architecture, and, later, protests of Cairo — much as their phones and social media do. At times, this multimedia element veers toward overwhelm (the video includes even close-ups of Inti’s jet taking off and landing) and in contrast, the lighting on Inti in her most riveting monologue — her tall shadow upside down on the panel behind her — is breathtaking in its simplicity. But overall, the projected visuals dramatically capture both the moment in Cairo and the omnipresence of social media that became so integral to the activism of the Arab Spring.

In staging Veils precisely on the cusp of the Arab world’s revolutions, Coash positions his script to contend with questions about the veil with bracing immediacy. He is also deft in revealing context writ both large and small, from the first wife of the Prophet — a successful and independent merchant — to the modern problem of students wearing niqabs to cheat at tests. At times the script still feels a little green, mainly in that some exchanges between the women stall on the same note of back-and-forth argument a little too long, diffusing the energy. Another key moment where less might be more comes when Samar returns ragged and traumatized from a rally: The image of her reeling in place with her panties in her hand is shocking enough; her accompanying disjointed monologue of repeated words and phrases feels a little like slam poetry. But the women’s affection and tension builds and complicates richly, their dialogue includes some fun cultural minutiae, and they are absorbing as they express their perspectives: Inti wears her veil in response to her heritage in both the American civil rights movement and the nakedness of slavery, while Samar disdains the veil as a false representation of her Egyptian culture.

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