It's been nearly 15 years since the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, though for some, the painful memories are no doubt as fresh as ever. Mountain View's Pear Theatre (celebrating its own 15th anniversary this year) kicks off its new season with a pair of shows, running in repertory; plays that highlight the strength of humanity in times of crisis, including 9/11.
"The Guys," by Anne Nelson, based on a true story, takes place in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers. Nick, a New York Fire Department captain, is charged with writing the eulogies for his fallen comrades, who served with him as first responders. Joan, a New York journalist (played by Pear's artistic director Diane Tasca), is feeling powerless and unable to help her community in a tangible way. The two "jump tracks," Pear director Christian Haines said, and join forces, hashing out the eulogies together and trying to find some way to heal.
"She finds that she has necessary skills that can help out in the post-9/11 recovery phase and he finds that he has the powerful feelings and descriptions in his own heart that truly make a great eulogy," Haines said. "It's really a touching story about people who would not normally meet, meeting each other and helping each other out."
Haines said the events of 9/11 still loom large in American culture.
"For the actors in the play and myself, you still kind of feel like it just happened," he said, recalling his own 9/11 experience of driving to a substitute-teaching gig in South San Francisco. He passed a sign announcing that all SFO flights were cancelled and, when arriving at the school, found that instead of the usual din of the overhead flight path, "it was silence. That was an eerie thing," he said.
"I think it's really important to remember it, so that we can commemorate it and then remind ourselves on how we got to where we are now," he said, "to reflect on how we, as a country have changed."
9/11 impacted the way in which Muslim-Americans -- and Muslims across the globe -- are viewed and treated. It's the perspectives of two very different Muslim women -- one American, one Middle Eastern -- that form the narrative of the Pear's second play, Tom Coash's 'Veils."
"Veils" takes place 10 years after 9/11, in the lead up to the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 Egypt. Intisar, a veiled African-American Muslim student who, having sometimes felt out of place in her own Philadelphia life, comes to Cairo's American Egyptian University for a year abroad. She both clashes and bonds with her roommate Samar, an Egyptian student who does not wear the hijab (head covering or veil) and associates western culture with the freedom and adventure she craves. While the two have differing opinions on the controversial Islamic tradition of veiling, they come together to create a blog that discusses the practice, and find themselves swept up in the imminent revolution.
The play explores "how stereotypes from the U.S. and the West affect the people who live (in the Middle East), and how one tries to put its values on the other," director Vickie Rozell said. A veiled woman, she explained, is not necessarily a conservative one.
"You can have a very modern person who happens to choose to wear modest dress; this is how they honor their religion," she said. "People tend to assume that people who wear the hijab are either being forced to wear it or that they are not intelligent, or backwards, which is not true. It's not true all over the world, and it's especially not true in the United States."
Playwright Coash lived in Egypt for four years and said he was tired of seeing Middle Eastern women continually stereotyped in western media.
"The women we knew were doctors, artists, professors, economists, archaeologists, etc. Smart, strong women who were very cosmopolitan. Why don't we were see these women in the news? I also felt that the subject of veiling is one of those subjects that everyone seems to have a strong gut reaction to but don't know anything about," he said.
The play started out as a one-act at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, where Coash was a visiting artist.
"It was very intimidating to sit in an audience of veiled women watching a play I had written about veils. They loved it, and even if they didn't necessarily agree with everything thing in the play, they loved that we were talking about their issues," he said.
"One of the recent reviews in London ended with the reviewer describing going home on the subway after the show and sitting across from three women wearing hijabs. He was amazed and glad to say that in looking at them now he had a whole different perspective than he would have had 90 minutes before," he added.
The Pear team has benefited from the insights of two Muslim consultants (a veiled woman and a self-described liberal Muslim man) and Rozell said she's been doing extensive research, with the hope that local audiences who may not know much about modern Muslim communities will come away with a better understanding.
"People need to get used to seeing people in veils and not worry about why they're wearing a veil. It means they are expressing their religion and doesn't mean anything else about them. That's a lot of why this play is so important to me," she said. "(Intisar) has all kinds of interests in addition to her religion, just like everybody else. Her religion is not the only thing to know about her, and as much as we can get that message out, it's better for everybody. The only way to break down stereotypes is to show a different view."
Many stereotypes that Muslims fight intensified after 9/11, Rozell said, and both "Veils" and "The Guys," while not directly related, explore the impact of major world events on a human scale.
"You can't do a play about all Muslims but you can do a play about two young Muslim women ... in hopes that people can start to go, 'Oh, these people are not nearly as different from me as I thought they were,'" she said. "One of the things theater does is teaching about the universal by looking at the specifics."
What: "The Guys" and "Veils"
Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View
When: Aug. 26-Sept. 18, performance dates alternate between the two shows
Info: Go to The Pear.