Portland Stage celebrated the world premiere of “Veils” on Friday night, immersing the audience in the Middle East with a captivating audiovisual performance.

Three tall screens magically glided forward and back, side to side, displaying real footage of Arab culture interspersed with Westernizing images of McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Starbucks. And the audience was transported back in time as news reports echoed through the theater, accompanying powerful images of the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011.

The play opened Friday with the image of a large pushpin marking Philadelphia on an oversized map. Intisar (Donnetta Lavinia Grays), an African-American Muslim college student, is about to board a plane from her home in Philly and journey to Cairo to study abroad for the 2010-11 school year.

The character is a devout Muslim who chooses to wear a veil, or hijab. She longs to find acceptance in Cairo and is surprised to find her roommate, Samar (Hend Ayoub), is a liberal Egyptian with an opposing view of the religious practice of women wearing veils.

Despite their differences, the two become fast friends upon meeting at the airport. But the events that follow test their friendship and challenge both their beliefs.

Playwright Tom Coash experienced Egypt firsthand, teaching English and theater at the American University in Cairo from 1996 to 2000. Through his characters, the audience is also given the chance to experience a culture that’s foreign and misunderstood by many Americans.

“Veils” was the Grand Prize Winner of the 2012 Clauder Competition for New England playwrights. The play was workshopped in May 2013 at Portland Stage’s Little Festival of the Unexpected, with Sally Wood directing.

Wood returns to direct this phenomenal two-member cast production on Portland Stage’s main stage. Grays also returns, after participating in the 2013 workshop with Wood. Ayoub joins the cast for her Portland Stage debut.

The two Broadway actresses deliver moving performances that draw the audience into the thought-provoking story. As their characters explore their cultural differences, viewers are also inspired to question assumptions and stereotypes.

Grays’ and Ayoub’s realistic portrayals, combined with the audiovisual elements, make “Veils” an all-out mesmerizing production that’s well worth seeing. Not only is it stimulating to the senses, but it’s also an educational piece.

The production provides knowledge about the different types of veils, from the hijab – a scarf that covers the head – to the burqa, a loose garment that covers the entire body and face.

Both sides of the issues facing Muslim women are represented fairly, and passionately.

Coash’s focus is on the Middle East, but his overall message is a universal one. No matter what our race, nationality, sexuality or religious and political beliefs, we’re all subject to stereotypes. “Veils” reminds us of the importance of seeing and understanding the people behind those all-too-often condemning generalizations. 

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at: [email protected]