Locally inspired mosque play's company launches city residency

By Susan Frick Carlman, Naperville Sun, 9/21/2015

What would happen if a mosque was built in the heart of downtown Naperville?

The creators of an evolving work of fiction inspired largely by the recent effort to open an Islamic worship center just outside Naperville have begun an 18-month residency in the city. They plan to gain community input aimed at answers to that rhetorical query.

Malik Gillani, founder and executive director of the Chicago theatrical production company Silk Road Rising, told the City Council Tuesday that the stage production, titled "Mosque Alert," features three fictional Naperville families, two of them Muslim.

"The premise of the play is that the Muslim families wish to turn the old Nichols Library on Washington Street into an Islamic house of worship, but they face challenges when securing zoning," Gillani said. "We are creating this play in response to the challenges that Muslims have faced across the country, including in Naperville, when trying to build Islamic houses of worship."

Operating with support from a grant from the philanthropy ArtPlace America, the group is working with a variety of local partners, including North Central College, the Naperville libraries, area faith organizations and social service agencies, he said.

While it most closely reflects the Irshad Learning Center's location on 75th Street just east of the city border, the play is based on four real-life cases between 2010 and 2012 that involved Islamic organizations attempting to establish worship spaces in unincorporated areas of DuPage County. Another of them is the effort by the Islamic Center of Naperville, which in 2011 faced opposition from neighbors to its request for clearance from Naperville to buy land for a future mosque on 248th Street, just outside southwest Naperville. The others are near Willowbrook and West Chicago.

All four eventually received approval. Irshad board member Ali Djalilian said earlier this month that the organization has encountered a series of delays, but hopes to be open for worship by the end of the year.

The "Mosque Alert" residency's premier screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 20 at North Central College. Gillani said he and playwright Jamil Khoury will incorporate feedback into a revision to be written with assistance from North Central students for release next fall.

Between now and then, they hope to draw substantial input from the community. Gillani said he is making numerous presentations in the community, including appearances scheduled Saturday before the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation and at a Methodist church on Sunday.

"The one we're really excited about is the stage reading that's coming up of the first draft of the play at North Central College on Oct. 20," he said.

Silk Road Rising recently mailed several thousand fliers to residents, outlining the project, he said.

"I just want people to be aware that A, we're doing this project, and B, that we want to engage them and encourage their input," Gillani said.

The process began earlier this year with local presentations that included one at Nichols Library in March. The interactive gatherings have been enlightening.

"We're learning a couple things," Gillani said. "We're learning that there's definitely a mixture of residents who are either excited or disinclined to engage in the conversation."

With the latter group, he said, he often seeks one-on-one conversations to ask what more can be done to improve the exchange. Sometimes, people aren't interested in talking about it.

Among those excited about the project, Gillani said, are some who say, "All Muslims are misrepresented. You need to do this." He thinks they're missing the point.

"This isn't a celebration of Islam. It's a celebration of what a community looks like ... The goal is to humanize and explore all of those perspectives," he said, adding that sometimes people who are very supportive of the project are dismayed to hear that. "These are complex issues."

The characters already have evolved as a result of the community engagement. Initially they were "mostly black and white," Gillani said.

"We were using that as a way to determine community position," he said.

The script originally included Charles Baker, the rather narrow-minded patriarch of the non-Muslim family. Founder of the local chamber of commerce and a DuPage County Board member preparing to run for mayor of Naperville, he soon emerged as unacceptably one-dimensional. Still, he had struck a familiar chord.

"A lot of people said, 'I know this guy. He's my uncle, and I like my uncle. We need to make this character someone we can support,'" Gillani said.

There are now two Baker brothers in the script, he said. One of them is driven by economic concerns, worried that a 100,000-square-foot downtown mosque will take a chunk of the city off the tax rolls, and the other more open-minded — but only about certain things.

"We're trying to shape these characters as people who are complicated," Gillani said.

Similarly, the script initially had one Muslim family and was later changed to include two, one of which has an adult questioning his faith, to the consternation of his elders.

"The community wanted to see these kinds of characters — children who are walking away, parents who are befuddled, Muslims who want to worship with people who look like them," Gillani said. "The audience feedback has been as much integrated as possible."

In addition to the recent and upcoming presentations in the city, Gillani and Khoury have met with representatives of assorted local organizations. Khoury said a conversation with Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Nicki Anderson and Downtown Naperville Alliance Executive Director Katie Wood yielded the plot element that placed the proposed mosque as a major addition to the old Nichols Library. The pair also has met with city staff, Khoury said, to make sure features of the fictional building proposal would fit into local zoning guidelines. In recent weeks they also have spoken with Mayor Steve Chirico, who has been supportive, Gillani said.

The two will be visiting the city often in the coming months.

"Community engagement comes down to being in as many places as possible, so that we bring in as many different people as we can," he said.