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Silk Road Rising's Mosque Alert is alarmingly relevant

After five years of development, Jamil Khoury's play about xenophobia opens in an ever-more-xenophobic political moment.


Sahar Dika, left, and Frank Sawa, right, in Silk Road Rising's Mosque Alert. - AIRAN WRIGHT
  • Airan Wright
  • Sahar Dika, left, and Frank Sawa, right, in Silk Road Rising's Mosque Alert.

Is this a great time for a new play about how Americans go all NIMBY if someone wants to build a mosque in their neighborhood?

Unfortunately, yes, says Jamil Khoury, whose drama Mosque Alert opens April 2 at Silk Road Rising, where he's also the artistic director.

Khoury thought things were bad back in 2010, when Cordoba House, a proposed mosque and community center two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan, set off a national uproar that ultimately sank the project.

According to Khoury, "Cordoba would have been so much more than a mosque. It would have been a place of interfaith dialogue and learning and art, like the Jewish Community Center on Amsterdam Avenue." Its defeat was the catalyst for Mosque Alert.

But Khoury didn't anticipate that by the time his play opened the likely Republican presidential nominee would be announcing that "Islam hates us."

Cordoba, which had the support of President Obama and then-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, was the subject of a right-wing fear-mongering campaign by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh, Khoury says.

And now?

"The vulgar discourse, the scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants, and the conflation of Islam with ISIS—all of these things are contributing to a significantly worse climate than existed in 2010. And worse than what existed shortly after 9/11," Khoury says. "Donald Trump has made this play more relevant."

The Ground Zero mosque fiasco was the highest-profile instance of something xenophobic that was going on all over the country, Khoury says, including suburban Chicago. When in the spring of 2011 he was invited to write a piece for American Theater Company's annual Ten by Ten festival, which features ten-minute plays by ten playwrights, he didn't have to search for a subject.

"Donald Trump has made this play more relevant."

—Playwright Jamil Khoury­

"Each playwright got the same photo as a starting point," says Khoury, who's Syrian on his father's side and Slovak-Polish on his mother's. "That year it was a Caucasian family—father, mother, son, daughter, and dog sitting around a pool. The dog didn't make it into my script, but that was the genesis for the Bakers."

The Bakers are one of three families (two of them Muslim) that now inhabit Mosque Alert, which is set in Naperville. Khoury, an Antiochian Orthodox Christian who grew up in Mount Prospect, picked this setting because two real-life mosque construction battles were playing out in unincorporated Naperville at the time. (Both mosques, the Irshad Learning Center and the Islamic Center of Naperville, prevailed and are now moving forward with their building plans.)

The opening scene of the finished play is a presentation to the Naperville planning and zoning commission that features drawings for the plan to renovate an actual Naperville landmark, the old Nichols Library, and turn it into a mosque and community center. A real-life mosque architect, Kentucky-based Christopher McCoy, drew actual plans for the fictional renovation pro bono.

Mosque Alert's five-year development process included residencies and student productions at Knox College and Valparaiso University, numerous community events (in Naperville and elsewhere), and an innovative online workshop that introduced characters and conflicts in short video scenes and invited the public to weigh in.

The online experiment, which I wrote about three years ago, seemed to offer an exciting way to extend the reach of a theater company beyond its immediate geographic area to a potentially unlimited global audience. Now that the play's opening and most of the videos have been taken down, I wondered how that worked out. Did an audience of millions turn up?

No, says Malik Gillani, Silk Road's executive director and Khoury's husband. (They cofounded the company, housed in the Loop's historic Chicago Temple, in 2002.) But the videos did attract 25,000 viewers from all over the world, including from countries where—if authorities had been aware of them—the subject matter might have been censored. About 200 of those viewers interacted with Khoury through e-mails or online comments.

Between the virtual and live events, Khoury says, more people than he can count "have their fingerprints on this play." In such circumstances it wouldn't have been surprising if that mission-driven, workshopped-by-committee process led to an overly politically correct and/or fatally didactic outcome.

Khoury says it didn't: "It's always a challenge when you start with an idea or political message and try to craft drama. But I want people to find themselves in this story. I think they'll have some perspectives and ideas challenged. This is a window into a number of intra-Muslim conversations that a lot of people may not be privy to."

And we're not talking about monolithic communities or one-dimensional characters, he says. "I'm interested in how we all embody contradictions, and we all fail to live up to our ideals."

Silk Road, which Gillani says has invested as much as $250,000 in this project, already counts it as a "community engagement" success.

We're about to find out if it'll also be a success on stage: in a more ominously xenophobic moment than anticipated, it's finally showtime. v

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