Chicago Tribune: Activist Theater – Silk Road's Goal: To Give a Voice to the Voiceless

On Sept. 11, 2001, Malik Gillani was a successful information technology consultant.

But then things began to change.

Within days the Indian-born Muslim had an employee walk out on him, complaining, “he couldn’t work for me because of who I am and what my people do,” Gillani recalled.

At work he found pictures of Osama bin Laden with a nail through his head. And he noticed strangers crossing the street when they saw him coming. He got the message.

Gillani’s friends assured him they knew that Muslims weren’t bad people. But “what about the rest of America?” he asked them. “Were they supposed to take me at my word on this without any proof? While some in my community are blowing themselves up all over the world, they’re supposed to believe that really we are nice people and those are just extremists doing it. You can’t just say those things, you have to take action, you have to do some good.”

So Gillani, 35, and his partner Jamil Khoury, 40 — who is not a Muslim but half-Syrian and well-acquainted with Arab and Islamic cultures — writing letters to the editor, giving lectures and even making videos for public access television on Muslims in America.

But none of these things had the impact they wanted. “So we did the ultimate American thing and said, ‘Let’s put on a show. Let’s do theater, have entertainment and maybe even serve food with it. Let’s make it attractive and appealing.’ ”

That was in early 2002 and by the summer of that year, The Silk Road Theatre Project was born, lurching into life with “Precious Stones” (a drama about Israeli-Palestinian relations) written by Khoury.

A little more than three years later, that little theater project idea has become a presence in the Chicago arts community and one with ever deepening roots. Although SRTP is staging its current production, “Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith,” in a chapel at the First United Methodist Church in the Chicago Temple Building, its next show will open this spring in a new $1.3 million theater built by the church in the basement of the same building. The theater will include a box office, lobby, dressing rooms, administrative offices and performance space, but most of it will serve as a multi-purpose area for the church.

Executive director Gillani and artistic director Khoury credit their backgrounds in business and academia as keys to their success. But even more important is the support they’ve gotten from First United Methodist Church, which in 2003 took the SRTP as its “Theatre-in-Residence” and is paying for the construction of the theater.

“We want to try to make it a safe and good place to talk about both differences and similarities,” the church’s senior pastor Philip Blackwell said. “So I was impressed by the timeliness of their work, especially when the dominant American culture was trying to understand what’s going on in the Middle East, India, Pakistan and the Far East. We are pretty clear about who we are as Protestant Christians, but our tradition is also to engage in these discussions. And so we are trying to live out our mission by hosting Silk Road.”

Khoury and Gillani see their theater as an overtly activist effort that gives work to “ethnic” actors and voice to the largely voiceless in Chicago theater. It aims to produce new works by playwrights who come not just from Arab or Muslim backgrounds but from any part of the traditional Silk Road trade route that encompasses the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Eurasia and Central, South and East Asia.

Over the last three years, SRTP has presented works about Japan, Egypt, Israel and Palestine — next season they plan to present works from Italy, China and India. With each show they attract arts lovers but also, through outreach, niche communities whose lives are reflected in the show. For “Ten Acrobats” the pair reached out to Chicago’s Muslim community through an interview on Radio Islam and a talk at an Egyptian dinner during Ramadan. But, said Khoury, “this was a unique case where the outreach backfired in a big way.”

While some local Muslims have enjoyed and supported the show, other Islamic leaders spoke out against it for, among other things, its portrayal of a possibly gay character.

Ahmed Rahab, director of communication for Chicago’s Council on American Islamic Relations, said that his chief objection dealt with marketing the show as a “Muslim-American” play, which, he felt, implied an endorsement from the community. Still, he confirmed that other leaders were more concerned about the subject matter, specifically “atheism and homosexuality, that are not considered issues very prevalent in the Muslim community . . . but issues that seem to be imposed upon it by the play makers.”

The pair were upset but not entirely surprised by the response. “Ten Acrobats” was originally written by Yussef El Guindi for a company in Los Angeles that shelved it after a staged reading drew ire from the local Islamic community.

“But I think it all boils down to a lack of representation,” Gillani said. “I mean when was the last time in Chicago theater history — never by the way — that there was a play about a Muslim-American family written by a Muslim? Chicago has 250 theaters and this representation has never been done. So I think when you do something like this you get all sorts of reactions to it; from those who are proud to some who don’t like it. [Those critical] wanted the first representation here to be something wholesome and pure. But I have the perfect solution for this: Write more plays and tell more stories.”

Gillani and Khoury have learned that being theatrical pioneers comes with its share of brush clearing and bumpy patches, but they haven’t lost their faith in telling stories to bring people together.

“Simple facts and numbers don’t always resonate,” Gillani observed. “But stories resonate. If you can tell stories, you can change people’s minds.”

“Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith” runs through Dec. 30 at the Chicago Temple Building 77 W. Washington St. 312-236-6881.

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