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'Does my head look big in this?': Drama explores cultural issues, with a focus on peers, principles

“Does My Head Look Big In This?”, a depiction of a dramatic, and oft-comic, culture clash, returns to the Hood River Valley High School stage this weekend (details below).

Cayla Sacre portrays Amal, a devout Muslim who happens to be a 16-year-old high school student with the same goals as her peers: good grades, friendships and fitting in.

But Amal, true to her Muslim beliefs, wears a head covering, the hijab, whenever she is in public, including school and at parties. This creates dissonance with her friends, her teachers, and in some ways even with her parents. She likes a boy (August Beard as Adam) who tries to understand, contends with the borderline assaultive disapproval of other peers led by Tia (Gabriella Whitehead), and forges an unlikely friendship with an elderly Jewish neighbor, Mrs. Vaselli (Rhianna Salman).

Director Rachel Harry arranged for what is the first production ever by the new play by Elizaabth Wong and Jeff Gottesfeld. She said she recognized some potentially controversial themes involving Muslims in America, but knew the Hood River community was ready for it.

“I read 15-16 plays every year. Every play I do I choose it because of something I personally am thinking about,” Harry said. “And this was where my head was at, on a global level. The whole religion element is also very current … and it connects to what I feel: that we need to treat each individual rather than the idea.”

She stressed that the play is also something her cast, and audience of fellow teens, can relate to.

The scarf, or hijab, is a very real thing (and Cayle styles it in several ways, courtesy of costumers Kathy Peldyak and Sarah Delano) but it serves as a tangible symbol of her resolve.

The one time that Amal either removes or changes her hijab for other than practical or ritual reasons comes in the debate scene, with Adam and Mr. Pearse (Graham Sholar). Pearce has pointedly assigned Amal to take the side of the debate that argues that students should NOT be allowed to wear religious garb or items to school. Amal accepts the challenge.

“I feel like Amal is very, very strong-willed and not one to back down from something even if she doesn’t believe in it,” said Sacre, a junior in her first lead role. “She’s very proud of her work and she will work as hard as she can to present something even if it something she doesn’t believe.

“There are other sides of her argument,” she said. “There is a reason why it’s a debate on whether she should be able to wear her hijab, so she’s just kind of dug into that side of it and she is kind of looked at things she doesn’t necessarily agree with it but she can see both sides of the story, and argue it well, because she understand it now.

She gets that maybe wearing the hijab is not very — accepted — culturally in a lot of ways.

“It’s a hard moment,” Sacre said of the debate scene. (You can see the anguish on her face as, mid-debate, she removes the hijab from her head.)

“I think it’s kind of a place where there’s either a positive or a negative,” she said, “and it’s pulling at her and taking this off, that’s how she wins this argument, because she shows she doesn’t have to wear it and she shows that she can take this off and go to school and still be a Muslim girl, but on the other side it’s a little of her feeling maybe like she’s giving in a little and she’s fought so hard to have the ability to wear this and now she’s taking it off.”

Overall, Sacre said, “the play is very controversial in some ways — nothing really offensive but people could maybe take it the wrong way. Religion is a touchy subject for so many people and it’s easy to go over the edge.”

Sacre did not hesitate when asked what her response would be to a person who expresses disagreement with the play for they perceive as a pro-Muslim point of view.

“I’d say ‘Do you know any Muslims?’”

The play continues March 7, 8, 14 and 15 at 7 p.m. and March 9 at 2 p.m., at Bowe Auditorium at HRVHS. It is suitable for all ages. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for students and seniors.

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Editor’s note: Set construction and design are by Jeff Lorenzen and his students, and by art teacher Amirra Malak, who drew upon her Egyptian and Coptic heritage in designing the impressive silk banners featuring geometric figures of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

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