FEEDBACK FROM THE START:
Enlisting Community in the Creation of
By Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director, Silk Road Rising
If it takes a village to write a play, then it’s taken a mid-sized city to write Mosque Alert. Five years of artistic input and output, including over a year and a half of actually writing the play, fostered communities-in-dialogue that would have never emerged otherwise. A lot of amazing people, many of whom I’ve never met, have weighed in on this story. And despite being someone who loves to talk, I found myself doing a great deal of listening and ended up learning more than I ever imagined. Invite co-creators, and they will come. Invite them from the very beginning, and they will be heard.
In 2011, with the ten-year commemoration of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 fast approaching, I was busy reflecting on 9/11 and its impact on American culture and public policy. I was particularly concerned with challenges facing America’s Muslim communities. The year prior, in the summer of 2010, I found myself feeling both galvanized and unsettled by the controversy surrounding Cordoba House (later Park 51), the bold visionary Islamic Community Center that had been proposed for Lower Manhattan, in close proximity to the site of the World Trade Center. The proposed building incited raucous debate on a national level. Pejoratively dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque,” Cordoba House revealed to me one of the most pernicious symptoms of post-9/11 anti-Muslim backlash—namely, a resistance to the building of mosques in communities across the U.S.
Since proposed masjids, or mosques, face levels of scrutiny and suspicion rarely directed at similarly proposed Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist houses of worship, I felt this a conflict worthy of dramatization, and I found several examples right here in Chicagoland. Two such cases in the western suburb of Naperville, Illinois, propelled me to make Naperville the setting for what became Mosque Alert. And despite the passage of time, prejudice continues to inform zoning policies and mosque proposals are still provoking kneejerk, not-in-my-backyard opposition that often gets conflated with national security fears, cultural anxieties, and perceived existential threats.
My first attempt as a playwright approaching this issue came about via Chicago’s American Theatre Company. I was fortunate to have been invited to participate in their 2011 10 x 10 Festival (my deepest gratitude to the late PJ Paparelli, who curated the festival), an annual event at ATC in which ten playwrights are commissioned to each write a ten-minute play based on individual responses to a photograph. The photo provided to the 2011 playwrights would prove crucial to sparking an early iteration of Mosque Alert: it depicted a Caucasian suburban family (mother, father, young adult daughter and son, and a dog) sitting around a backyard swimming pool.
In my ten-minute play, also titled Mosque Alert, this nameless Caucasian family became the forerunners of the current play’s Baker family. A mosque has been proposed in their local community and, in response, all hell breaks loose on the homefront. Mother and son support the mosque while father and daughter oppose it (incidentally, the dog never factored into the play; chalk it up to my allergies). This proto-Mosque Alert explores the heated ten minutes leading up to the arrival of the mosque’s spiritual leader, Imam Mostafa, whom the mother has invited over as part of a PR campaign she has devised. We never see the imam—only hear the doorbell ring.
Out of this experience and the conversations that ensued, there evolved a truly unconventional, and (to the best of my knowledge) first-of-its-kind, online, new play development and civic engagement process. My idea was to wed playwriting with public discourse, to blend a 4,000 year old art form with modern-day digital technology, and to write a new play while exploring resistance to the building of mosques. In its original, online video-driven iteration, Silk Road Rising introduced a nine-step process that attracted participants as both artistic collaborators and engaged citizens. We solicited input on character development, plot points, and narrative arcs, while facilitating discourse on civil rights, Islamophobia, and religious pluralism. Our presumed audience was primarily local, but we quickly noticed downloads from around the world, including countries in which certain conversations of ours may be censored and/or prohibitively dangerous.
Now, five years, one ten-minute play, two video essays, 24 video blogs, nine digital conflict scenes, one compilation video, dozens of live screenings (at colleges, libraries, houses of worship, and civic organizations), countless surveys, questionnaires, newsletters, and postings (via websites, social media, email, and print materials), table reads, numerous workshops, ten public staged readings, three college productions, a professional world premiere, 25,000+ global downloads, a German translation, ten directors, dozens of actors, a high school playwriting course, a steady evolution from four to six to eleven characters, and hundreds of live and online conversations later, we’ve finally arrived at this current version of the script. Clearly our mid-sized city never sleeps!
While each stage of this journey proved critical to Mosque Alert’s development, I do need to give special credit to Illinois’ Knox College and Indiana’s Valparaiso University for providing me the time, space, and resources needed for the play to take shape. In 2014 and 2015, I enjoyed playwriting residencies at both institutions, each culminating in student productions of earlier drafts of the play. The opportunities availed to me, the talented creative teams with whom I worked, and the knowledge gained from each residency were instrumental in getting the play to where it is today. Here I must note that Mosque Alert would never have been written as a full-length stage play had Knox College Professor of Theatre Neil Blackadder not prodded me to do so by offering that first residency and production. The digital renderings of the story had successfully taken off and were enjoying a life of their own, and I’d grown convinced that the project (and my creative efforts) best belonged online. Thankfully, Neil convinced me otherwise!
In all honesty, I couldn’t have done this without the community of co-creators that emerged, and that includes the handful who sent me hate mail and failed to acknowledge my thoughtful replies, as well as those who strained vocal chords shouting at presentations and dismissing my replies. And of course, the walkouts—oh, the walkouts. But the vast majority of those who contributed to this play have been supportive, generous, insightful, and challenging. My gratitude knows no bounds. That goes for the “civilian” contributors, as well as all the directors, actors, dramaturgs, and production teams who joined this journey at various points and left their imprints throughout the text.
In terms of geographic community, the MVP award goes, hands down, to the people and institutions of Naperville, Illinois, who welcomed us into their lives and offered invaluable local knowledge. In particular, I want to thank Naperville’s former Mayor, George Pradel, and current Mayor, Steve Chirico, for their encouragement, wisdom, suggestions, and gentle criticism, along with their signature hospitality. Yes, when it came time to sit down and write this baby (and rewrite, and rewrite), that’s what I did, but believe me, the thoughts of many were dancing in my head—and none more so than the thoughts of my husband, Malik Gillani: the best sounding board and editor a playwright could hope for.
Our mid-sized city has found its voice. If the feedback I’ve been receiving for five years now tells me anything, it’s how critical this issue is to America’s cultural zeitgeist. It was arguably no coincidence that Silk Road Rising’s Spring 2016 world premiere production set a company record for completed post-show surveys. And now, as Mosque Alert garners more productions, I hope to continue enlisting communities in dynamic conversation about the play itself—as a story, as a world of characters, as a work of art. Long live Mosque Alert!