Art imitates life in Mosque Alert play

Producer Malik Gillani and Playwright Jamil Khoury at North Central College discussing Mosque Alert

The fictional prospect of a downtown Naperville mosque, based on area Islamic groups' true experiences in and around the city in recent years, drew real-life discussion this week at North Central College.

The Chicago theater company Silk Road Rising brought a staged reading of its in-progress "Mosque Alert" production to an overflow audience in the Madden Theatre on Tuesday evening. Part of an evolutionary process that is collecting community feedback on the two-hour narrative, the presentation spotlighted a plot inspired largely by the experience of a group now constructing a worship center just over the city's eastern border.

Along with the effort to construct a mosque in New York City near the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the Irshad Learning Center is one of four local proposals that have gone before decision-making bodies in Naperville and DuPage County over the past five years. The county's rejection of the Irshad request for zoning clearance wound up in federal appellate court, where a 2013 ruling in Irshad's favor cleared the way for the center. It is now being built in a former residence, later used as a day care center, on 3 acres facing 75th Street just east of Naper Boulevard.

The play's focus is on the city core and a fictionalized proposal to build an Islamic community center as a major addition to the former Nichols Library building, now the real-life home to the Kroehler Family YMCA on Washington Street. The varying effects of the plan on three hypothetical Naperville families, two of them Muslim, takes up most of the storyline as the City Council considers zoning clearance for the facility.

Playwright Jamil Khoury said the fluid script is the product of "online work, live presentations and many, many conversations" in recent months. The working-stages play, supported partly this year by a 16-month city residency grant from ArtPlace America, had its world premiere in February at Knox College in western Illinois. It will have another run at Valparaiso University in Indiana Nov. 11-15, and the final version is scheduled for a world premiere in the Chicago Temple Building, home to Silk Road's performance venue, in late March.

"It will come home to Naperville the fall of 2016," Khoury said, alluding to a production engagement featuring a North Central cast and crew.

The play's title comes from a website set up by one of the characters, a vocal opponent of the mosque proposal. He is one of about a dozen multifaceted players that make up the cast.

A recurring message in the dialogue is that things often are not as they seem. One character's tough outer demeanor belies an active conscience within his heart. Touching on the faith's frequent perception as placing women in second-class status, the young adult daughter of one of the Muslim families asserts that her feminist activism is inspired by Islam, not counter to its teachings.

Malik Gillani, Silk Road's executive director and Khoury's husband, said public perception informed by traditional media tends to be based on a one-dimensional portrayal of Islam.

"We always hear, 'Well, where's the silent majority?' " said Gillani, who is Muslim. "This gives the silent majority a voice."

The play's local references are numerous, from one character's plans to submit an op-ed piece for publication in the Naperville Sun to a scene set in the existing downtown sweets emporium Le Chocolat du Bouchard. One character, asserting there would be a tax advantage for Naperville in having the site see commercial use, says the now-financially strained city "is borrowing money to pay its bills." A particularly vocal opponent to the mosque plan alludes to outside financing, mirroring an actual chapter in the Irshad approval process in which a local tea party activist raised questions about the center's mortgage connection to the Alavi Foundation, once suspected of having ties to Iran's nuclear program.

The piece melds matters of zoning, civil rights and fear of Islam with family dynamics and candor, throwing in generous pinches of redemption, forgiveness and humor.

"I think it's fantastic," said audience member and Hyde Park resident Charles Preston, who teaches world religion at the University of Chicago, adding that the humor element was unexpected. "But I think it's a good touch."

Some in the audience found the anger expressed by one of the Muslim women to be excessive, particularly in light of the quick wit she displays with humorous lines. Khoury, however, included those traits intentionally.

"I don't want her to lose that anger because I think that rage comes from a very valid place," he said.

Seven-year DuPage County Board member Tony Michelassi, who represents Naperville and the rest of District 5, chaired the development committee when the Irshad proposal went under review. The Aurora resident was one of the 110 or so who attended the reading. While he related he was "stunned" to find out the case had provided impetus for a full stage production, Michelassi said it was good news when he learned the play would be set in Naperville and would include perspectives from the County Board.

"It really felt like someone had been watching the films of the County Board meetings and the hearings that took place involving this case," he said.

Planners of the other mosques in unincorporated DuPage — one of them on Army Trail Road near Bloomingdale and the other west of Route 83 near Willowbrook — are still working to finalize their arrangements to build worship centers, Michelassi said. The 3,500-family membership of the Islamic Center of Naperville also has land where a future mosque is planned, on 248th Street near the city's far southwest corner. Those three requests faced the same sort of vocal opposition from neighbors that met the Irshad proposal.

Slated to take part in a January panel discussion focused on mosque zoning disputes and moderated by Khoury, Michelassi is pleased that the Irshad facility is moving toward opening its doors.

"I'm glad that they were able to get their house of worship built," he said.