In a dorm room two young women are listening over their speakers to a woman singing about lost love — I wait for you, but you never come. One has a book open, and the other translates the words of the song as she removes hair from her legs with a taffy-like mixture of sugar, water and lemon, like waxing.
They are students at American University in Cairo in 2010. A local woman shares her home with an American, and their growing friendship and quiet semester are about to erupt with rallies and protests as the Arab Spring begins.
The journey that follows is layered and adept, strongly written and viscerally powerful. Hend Ayoub as Samar and Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Intisar appear in “Veils” by Tom Coash, at Barrington Stage Company through Oct. 18.
Stereotypes dissolve in the first few seconds. Intisar is American and Muslim, born and raised. She comes on stage adjusting her veil in the in the mirror with a laughing thumb’s up. She is in the airport, preparing to meet her new room-mate and high with excitement. She is black, from a well-educated family in Philadelphia. And Samar comes on to meet her in skinny jeans, her hair long and loose over her shoulders, Tweeting Intisar’s arrival on her iPhone.
The set design is striking and simple. Sloping glass panes become the high windows of a dorm room in a tall building — or a set of screens. Digital images flicker on them in the scene changes; they never distract from the characters and the human energy of the action, but they give momentum to the transitions, as an actor in the dark prepares to face the action and the set shifts invisibly around her.
Intisar comes eagerly to a new city in a new country. She has wanted for years to learn about her faith in a place where is part of everyday public life. Here she can wake every morning to the call to prayer. Here she can look for a teacher and sense her faith alive in the streets. She feels as a Jewish woman might feel about coming to Jerusalem and hearing Hebrew spoken all around her.
But an Imam refuses to speak to her because she is a woman. Students at the university violently protest the veil that she has always worn proudly.
Grays gives Intisar a rich depth of courage, anger and compassion. After 9/11, when she was 13, Intisar’s mother got strip-searched at an airport as she watched. For her family, nakedness can be a violation, and choosing what to cover and what to reveal can give protection or dignity or intimacy. When Intisar told that story for Samar’s blog, forceful and direct and half afraid of the camera, Grays brought the audience to spontaneous applause.
In her hands, Intisar feels believably 20, full of fire, experimenting and vulnerable.
Her passion for her faith is tangible, and she makes the call to prayer, the power of waking a city, incandescent and beautiful. She gives perspective as she gains it. She is seeing the United States from the outside for the first time — and seeing her family as an adult. Her relationships with her parents feel three-dimensional, warm and strong. They can push back at her and hold her together at the same time, even when she is shaking scared. Through Intisar we feel her father’s encouragement, and his natural worry and care as he lets her fly away into a country in conflict — and her mother’s bracing toughness, willingness to take risks and memories of Civil Rights protests.
Samar feels familiar to anyone who has walked through an American college. She is brash and warm and eager — dancing in clubs and meeting friends for take-out. Ayoub balances Samar’s maturity and immaturity, her moments of swigging coconut Malibu with her ambition to become a journalist, her blog posts about the changing Egyptian political climate and her real fear that freedom can be lost.
She has depths, and Ayoub makes them felt, though Samar’s background and her thoughts often come through in flashes. She knows the Sufi community well enough to find Intisar a teacher. She can debate the text of the Quran and the history of the Iranian revolution. She remembers her grandmother’s stories of protests.
These glimpses of her mind and her life waken a curiosity for more — when she invites Intisar to celebrate a holiday with her family, what would that be like? What is she studying in college; when she passionately defends her right to be there, what does it mean to her? When Intisar accuses her of not acting like a real Muslim, she raises questions about how Samar thinks of her faith, how she has lived it and what she believes. As the play goes on, Ayoub wins respect for Samar’s grit and intelligence and makes those questions all the more pressing.
The play moves from political rallies to private show-downs and from blog exposition to deft, direct and sometimes swiftly nuanced dialog. The screens floating above Intisar and Samar emphasize that this drama playing out privately in a dorm room is playing out publicly in the city and on phones and televisions across the world. And as a theme, that tension becomes central: a veil is a screen between public and private life. If a woman chooses to wear one, it can give comfort or style or self-expression, and if public opinion or the law forces her to wear one, it can imprison her.
And the tension may come through most forcefully not in a blog post or a speech but in moments of contact. When Samar sits shivering after her first invasive contact with police and Intisar wraps a blanket around her, when they look out at the tanks and the people outside their window shouting it is enough as the protest spreads — when they look at each other then, they have power enough to bring tears.
A version of this story (updated here) ran first at the Arts Fuse. Many thanks to editor Bill Marx.