TOM COASH NEVER intended to write a ripped-from-the-headlines play, but when you’re writing about college students in the Middle East, the headlines have a way of catching up with you.
In Coash’s play Veils, which will premiere at Maine’s Portland Stage Feb. 25–March 16, an African-American Muslim student at a university in Cairo becomes friends with her Egyptian roommate. “They’re smart women and they have very strong opinions,” says Anita Stewart, Portland Stage artistic and executive director.
The two characters disagree over the practice of veiling—a veil being anything from a hijab (head scarf) to a burka (full body covering)—and launch a video blog debating whether veils should be worn on campus. History, in the form of the Arab Spring, intervenes and threatens their friendship.
But Veils isn’t just about veils; it’s about what’s underneath. “It’s a beautiful way of looking at something we see as headline news and turning it into a human story,” Stewart continues. “These are college kids, and they talk about things all college kids talk about, like whether or not to shave your legs.”
Coash spent four years teaching playwriting at the American University in Cairo and says his characters were inspired by students he knew: “Every year there would be maybe a dozen African-American Muslim students who would come to AUC for the year abroad.” After feeling like outsiders in the United States, they believed “they were coming someplace where they would be accepted.” But they weren’t. “About 100 percent of them hated it.”
Coash began writing Veils after he returned to the U.S. but before the Arab Spring. “Everything happened so rapidly,” he acknowledges. “I didn’t expect there to be a revolution. I felt I couldn’t just ignore what I’d learned there.”
Portland Stage committed to producing Veils after the script won the 2012 Clauder Competition for New England playwrights. That further unrest would again put Egypt on the nightly news was never a consideration—but, Coash concedes, it “certainly draws attention to the play.”