Did you hear the one about the Syrian Slovak Pole who started a theatre company with a Pakistani businessman, then a famous downtown Chicago church gave them a permanent stage for plays about sex, religion and politics?
Surprise: It really happened!
Such a combination wouldn't be so rare an occurrence were it not for a sociopolitical climate that vilifies 'Arab' and demonizes 'Muslim.' So somebody had to take the initiative. That somebody is Silk Road Rising. And the folks at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple are broadly respected by Chicago's who's-who for possessing the secure sophistication to host edgy, provocative creative works for public consumption in their stylishly tricked-out church basement. The Midwest premiere of Silk Road's next production in the Chicago Temple highrise will be no less progressive than the last, the mere title of which portends a challenge to sensibilities.
Invasion! is the name. And agitate is the game. It's a play The New York Times described as delivering performances of "young, reckless youths within a Kafkaesque world, where one mistake can have serious consequences."
In the play, a female character frustrated at being treated like an exotic bursts with exasperation: "At that point I've had enough. I refuse to give up this time. I gather myself and start to talk about counter-movements, secular Muslim cultures, intellectual, post-modern feminists in veils." This is the cleaner language in the piece. It gets gritty.
Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani founded the Silk Road Theatre Project (now Silk Road Rising) in response to the backlash against people from Asia and Africa -- Arabs, Arab Americans and Muslims in particular -- after 9/11. A dozen years on, the call to action is still lamentably relevant. So for Silk Road Rising, Invasion! is the long-awaited prescription for an audience ripe for a complex dose of irony with a dash of mind-changing.
Khoury calls Invasion! a "mischievously subversive play" that addresses prejudices, assumptions and fears, particularly as they regard Arab and Muslim men. The rebelliously nonlinear work is "crazy funny and absurdly entertaining," said Khoury, "which says a lot considering that we as an audience are being assaulted." Therein lies the call to action.
What action? Consciously redefining the discourse on racial and ethnic stereotypes. "I want an Arab American theatre movement," wrote Khoury in an artistic rumination on his website. "I want an Arab American theatre movement that is vibrant and visible and daring and unafraid of its own power."
Khoury, who is Syrian Arab but not Muslim (though his partner Malik comes from an Indian/Pakistani Muslim family), said he sees a constellation of communities being increasingly disenfranchised by a smear campaign that isn't being challenged. The labeling of anything or anyone as a 'national security risk' declares it open season on that purported risk, even if it means miscasting an entire group of people with only one attribute in common.
"I reflect back to a time in our not-too-distant past when a gay or lesbian character had to either be killed or commit suicide by the end of the story," explained Khoury. "The ending had to be tragic because gay and lesbian lives had to be tragic. Both onstage and onscreen, the gay person had to die."
"We are now facing a similar 'tragedy' as regards our depictions of Muslim men. The Muslim man must either be implicated in a terrorist act or beat up a woman, or both," Khoury said. "That Muslim guy who appears at first to be gentle and enlightened -- a regular Joe just like 'us' -- in the end must confirm our worst fears about Muslim men through committing an act of violence. It's all part of one big trajectory of really bad representation."
Then along came Tunisian-Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri's Invasion! with a deft and sassy rebuttal.
Awareness is increasing. The popular TV magazine Chicago Tonight featured Silk Road Rising and highlighted Khoury's own play-in-progress Mosque Alert in its audience-interactive video phase. In it, two suburban Chicago families -- one Christian, one Muslim -- divulge their inner selves on the issue of a new mosque planned for construction. (See video below.)
But stage and screen are not the only venues Khoury exploits for correcting the record. His watchdog mission found him going head-to-head with Chicago's prized director-playwright Mary Zimmerman after an interview she gave Chicago Magazine. Khoury's remarks went viral.
After a rather public dispute over proper theatrical protocol vis-à-vis potentially patronizing Orientalist themes, the two have engaged in an ongoing in-person dialogue to explore parameters of expression. The hope is not only to find common ground between each other, but also to go forth as leaders in the lively arts with a mutual appreciation for the responsibility and gravitas of representing people as they would recognize themselves.
"Since 9/11 we have seen a number of plays produced at American theatres that deal with Arab and Muslim themes, but few actually written by Arabs and Muslims," Khoury noted. The importance of self-representation -- reclaiming the mantle of representation -- comes across in this play written by an Arab. Invasion! offers an insider's perspective, rejecting the practice of ceding one's representation to others.
Silk Road Rising's production of Invasion! directed by Anna Bahow runs July 30 -- September 1, 2013, at the Historic Chicago Temple Building.
Below is Chicago Tonight's video featuring Silk Road Rising's founding directors in discussion of Jamil Khoury's play Mosque Alert exploring a related theme.