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Maria Toorpakai Wazir, among the world’s best squash players, visited Country Day on Tuesday. The human rights activist and author has spent more than a third of her life in some form of hiding. The first thing she hid was her gender, masquerading as a boy so she could play squash against the boys rather than being confined to her home as other girls were in the Wazir tribe. Later she would hide for her life, receiving death threats from the Taliban in reaction to her rise to the top of international squash and her embrace of multiculturalism.
Toorpakai never doubted the sincerity of the terrorist group’s threat, and she stayed safe by staying at home.
For three straight years, behind locked doors.
She continued to play squash for hours each day, against the first opponent who was as tireless as Toorpakai was: her bedroom wall.
Years of fighting American and Afghan troops took a toll on the Taliban, weakening them enough for Toorpakai to venture outside. Within months of that first step back into the world, she finished third in the world junior women’s squash championship.
Toorpakai success continued at the junior level, and two years after her strong showing in the world championships, she turned pro.
Toorpakai still plays professional squash, but she has also combined her passion for the sport with her unique life story to become something more than a pro athlete.
During her day at LCDS, Toorpakai spent twice as much time talking to Middle and Upper School students as she did playing squash on the new courts. What makes her compelling is that she speaks with more than just the indomitable will and laser focus one would expect from a competitor of her caliber. Toorpakai’s keen intelligence and resilient character allowed her to overcome numerous difficulties, any one of which could reasonably have stymied someone slightly less driven.
She shared stories of enduring ceaseless bullying and harassment from the boys, who were apparently allowed to carry on that way with impunity.
The havoc and destruction of war became another daily occurrence, and Toorpakai described how Taliban bombs leveled her mother’s school, her father’s university, and killed many family friends and neighbors. Toorpakai’s student audience sat rapt while she recounted the terrifying, nightmarish period in a matter-of-fact voice.
One topic that did bring fresh anger to Toorpakai’s story was the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. A devout Muslim, Toorpakai could barely conceal her disgust for the puritanical, benighted dogma that the Taliban regards as the word of God. It bothered her that they presume to call their ignorant interpretation Islam. What bothered her more, however, was that the beliefs espoused by this tiny group conforms neatly to — and confirms — the simplistic caricature of Islam that’s an essential element of Western prejudice and misunderstanding.
Toorpakai recently published her first book, “A Different Kind of Daughter,” and was chosen to become a member of the International Olympic Committee. In addition, Pope Francis tapped Toorpakai to join his new organization, Sport At The Service Of Humanity. Its mission is to explore “the power for good that [faith and sport] could deliver in partnership with one another.”
For as rich as her life story is, and for as compelling and inspirational it might have struck many in the audience, the highlight of Toorpakai’s day — not to mention every Country Day squash player — came when she stepped onto the court.
For more than two hours, Toorpakai took turns rallying with the large, revolving group of students who packed the spectator area waiting for their turn to hit around with the best player any of them had ever hit around with.
Toorpakai was all smiles and it was hard to tell whether it was she or the kids enjoying the casual squash-stravaganza the most. More than a few times, Toorpakai stopped play to provide pointers on technique or to talk strategy.
It was a vivid example of a truth she had shared with the Middle School a few hours earlier.
“We’re all from the same planet and squash is a universal language,” Toorpakai said.
In addition to the usual day-in-the-life series of photos, this edition features Middle School overnight trips, as well as the Montreal and Quebec City voyage. Meanwhile back here at home, the head of school played a little impromptu squash on our newly opened courts. Finally, we present the striking photographs of German international student Max K. ’19. They are images of the school as you’ve never seen it.
“People in the audience will go, ‘Oh my God, that’s my life.’ Part of the reason I love this play so much is that it’s just real life. These scenes can happen and people will be able to relate to it.”
For her latest production, director Kristin Wolanin chose John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine,” a play that has resonated deeply with her from the first time she saw it.
“It was just a story of love. The difference with this one, what sets it apart for me, is that what happens in the play can actually happen in real life.”
Wolanin isn’t the only one bitten by the “Almost, Maine” bug. According to Playbill, it’s been the most produced play in North American high schools twice since its 2004 debut.
Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 2-4, as well as a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday. Tickets are $5 in advance and $7 at the door.
“Of everything we’ve done since I started, this play has been the most challenging one for the actors,” Wolanin said. “There’s nothing for them to hide behind. Other shows had lots of farce or iambic pentameter or something else that interposed itself between the actors’ real lives and their performances and allowed them to do a great show without necessarily revealing all of themselves.
“This is asking them to just be real. That’s the greatest challenge for any actor and it’s been hard for them,” Wolanin said. “I approach directing from an actor’s perspective. I’ve walked in their shoes. I can talk to them as an actor and I don’t ask them to do anything I couldn’t do myself.”
“Almost, Maine” is a romantic comedy that consists of 11 short scenes that all take place the same night in Maine, under the Northern Lights. One consequence of eschewing the traditional three act structure for 11 scenes that are both interconnected yet discrete, is that the play features more than a dozen “main” characters.
To meet this challenge — while meeting and exceeding the company’s own high standards — Wolanin called upon the largest cast and crew in recent Country Day history, if not ever: 47 students, from sixth-12th grade. This group includes 14 actors, five of whom have never appeared in one of the large, semiannual theater productions, and a sixth who’ll be speaking his first lines in front of an audience at Thursday’s premiere.
Everyone in Wolanin’s theater gang has to pull double duty: Every actor takes a turn bringing a show to life from backstage or the lighting booth and every crew member eventually struts and frets his hour upon the stage at least once. (Hopefully with minimal fretting.)
“If you’re in the company, you’re in the cast and the crew. Everything we do is about always presenting audiences with quality work, and I think it makes actors better if they have an appreciation for what’s going on offstage. I also love having a big enough company to give every student a chance to be on stage,” Wolanin said.
“Almost, Maine” Cast & Crew
PETE — Tristan H.
GINETTE, GAYLE — Clare J.
EAST, RANDY — Sam D.
GLORY — Kendall K.
JIMMY — Alex A.
SANDRINE, RHONDA — Delphi A.
WAITRESS — Sadi S.
MARVALYN, HOPE — Malia C.
STEVE — Theo Z.
LENDALL — Thomas W.
CHAD, DAVE — David W.
PHIL — Christopher M.
MARCI — Courtney C.
Director: Kristin Wolanin
Production Stage Manager: Kylie D.
Deck Carpenter and RUN: Tessa B.
Sound Designer and RUN: Justin K.
Props Master and RUN: Linnea W.
Props Crew: Mira H., Ryan M., Noah S., Larry L. and Lora S.
Props Run Crew: Mira H. and Noah S.
Set Crew/Stage Crew: Sophia H., Tessa B., Maria H., Janani I., and Laurel M.
Publicity Chief: Danny K.-B.
Publicity Crew: Piper S., Ben K., Jay N., and Gaby N.
Costume Mistresses and RUN: Katrina F.
Costume Crew: Julia N., Sophie M., Julia B., Paityn N., Adrian W. and Sarah H.
Costume Run: Julia B., Adrian W. and Julia N.
Master Electrician and RUN: Hayden F.
Box Office Managers: Amelia L. and Mae B.
Box Office Assistant: Tess M. and Maddie B.
House Manager: William H.
Ushers: Ryan M., Paityn N., Tess M., Piper S., Lora S., Ben K., Larry L. and Jay N.
This edition presents the fullest snapshot to date of Country Day’s myriad goings on, from Upper School physics rocket tests to the Middle School-Faculty Games to Laura Trout’s spooky science extravaganza in kindergarten. We’ll leave the list at that and let the photos do the talking. Enjoy.